Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

Boy Meets Girl

January 24, 2015

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Boy Meets Girl is a mildly ironic title for a movie that almost always feels genuine. It’s a romantic comedy-drama about Ricky (Michelle Hendley), a young Kentucky woman who wants to go to a fashion school in New York. Ricky was also born female in every way except physically. The transgender narrative has become more familiar and less exotic in recent years, and deservedly so. What once might have come across as gimmicky, a way for a cisgender actor or actress to play trans and collect accolades (cf. Felicity Huffman, Jeffrey Tambor), now powers a low-key film in which Ricky’s identity is more or less taken for granted, and Ricky is played by a neophyte trans actress whose experiences bring unstressed authenticity to the character.

Ricky hangs out with childhood friend Robby (Michael Welch), who seems to see her as just Ricky, a girl he’s known forever. Pretty much everyone in the small Kentucky town knows who Ricky is and what her deal is. One day Ricky meets Francesca (Alexandra Turschen), and even though Francesca is engaged to a soldier, David (Michael Galante), stationed in Afghanistan, she and Ricky pursue a tentative connection. Francesca doesn’t know what Ricky’s deal is, but she finds out soon enough, and it intrigues her even more. We can guess, however, that David won’t be in Afghanistan for long.

Despite that, Boy Meets Girl takes its cue from the laid-back drawl of Michelle Hendley, whose unaffected performance provides a baseline of truth and humor. Ricky has climbed long and hard to be okay with herself, and by the time the movie starts she’s already done seven years of hormones and many more years of getting used to her own skin. The awkwardness is mostly felt by Francesca and, later, her fiancé; they may not hate Ricky for who she is, but the very fact of Ricky makes them wonder about their own identities. The supporting cast — especially Michael Welch, who reminded me of the very young Saving Private Ryan-era Nathan Fillion — seems happy to work alongside Hendley and to enact the script’s emotional convolutions.

This is the tenth feature by writer-director Eric Schaeffer, whose goofy If Lucy Fell I pooh-poohed nearly twenty years ago, and whose subsequent work I skipped. Based on Boy Meets Girl, I now feel I may have done Schaeffer a disservice, ignoring his later output that may have been, for all I know, as thorny and insightful and good-hearted as this film is. The movie logically stops at the eighty-minute point, but then goes on a bit longer, because it recognizes that it needs to deal with two other characters and the feelings they bring into the mix. The cheerful denouement feels earned. Ricky’s life beyond the movie will go as it should. She can take care of herself.

Appropriate Behavior

January 18, 2015

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The debut feature by writer/director Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior has been compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I’ve never seen the Dunham show, but I’m prepared to believe that Akhavan’s movie is as inspired by Dunham as leagues of white male nerds were by Woody Allen. The question you have to ask is: Derivative as it may be, is this film its own thing — does it have its own voice, its own concerns, its own world? Appropriate Behavior does, I think.

Akhavan also stars as the lead character, Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite closeted to her Persian family, to the chagrin of her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story of Shirin and Maxine unfolds in non-linear flashbacks; the present tense involves Shirin’s attempts to move on from her breakup with Maxine, including a job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds and an awkward polyamorous fling with a couple she randomly meets. Shirin is a typical confused twentysomething, trying to forge an identity among people who may be a little too rigid in their own identities — and not just the conservative Middle Eastern family she’s vaguely afraid of.

Akhavan’s writing/directing style is as deadpan and laid-back as her acting. The movie is the opposite of emotionally pushy, which makes an underwear-snipping, bottle-throwing argument late in the film stand out even more. Appropriate Behavior is, of course, about inappropriate behavior, but nobody is judged for it. It’s just the sort of goofiness that smart, needy people get themselves into, and nobody gets terribly hurt. The movie’s amused view of aimless artistic types in the city reminded me a little of the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl. People ironically take stock of their neuroses, aware that their problems aren’t the end of the world, even if they feel apocalyptic.

Shirin doesn’t have a whole lot of back-up; she has one nonjudgmental friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and various acquaintances and flirtations. Characters are allowed to be weird, complicated, flawed; nobody really does the expected thing. The guy who gives Shirin her job (Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) is a Louis CK-type sad sack who’s a little clueless but nonthreatening; that goes for pretty much everyone else, though they’re all clueless and nonthreatening in their own styles. The movie doesn’t seem to be up to anything larger than an amiable slice of urban life, and it doesn’t need to be.

Appropriate Behavior packs a drowsy erotic charge during a couple of its trysts, and even during those it doesn’t lose its tremulous sense of humor. Shirin teaches class alongside a blonde waif who used to be a hair model and whose “advanced” moviemaking class produces a pompous, Artistic little film called “At Park”; Shirin’s more down-to-earth class makes “Tales of the Lost Fart,” featuring zombies, boogers, and copious farts. Akhavan’s own movie is somewhere in the middle — no stranger to foo-foo self-reflection or to embarrassing physical foibles.

Nick Offerman: American Ham

December 28, 2014

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According to the Wikipedia page on the concert film Nick Offerman: American Ham, Nick Offerman is an “American actor, writer, and carpenter.” That description might please him, though having “carpenter” ranked before the other two might please him more. Offerman, for those unfamiliar with his fan-favorite Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson, is a stout fellow with a burly soup-strainer. He looks, and carries himself, like a man who works with his hands. Like Harrison Ford, another carpenter who found himself in front of the camera, Offerman has the authenticity of a person who knows how things fit together. This kind of knowledge is increasingly rare and useful.

Offerman may be an actor, writer, and carpenter, but he’s not a stand-up comic, and American Ham is not really a stand-up routine. It’s a test drive of material and thoughts that would make their way into Offerman’s book Paddle Your Own Canoe (the concert was filmed in March 2013; the book was published the following October), including a song with the same title as the book. Standing onstage, sometimes strumming a Gibson, Offerman makes good on his surname — he offers his audience, as the subtitle of his book puts it, one man’s fundamentals for delicious living. He places a heavy emphasis on tasting things, from red meat to, well, use your dirty imagination. American Ham is amiably filthy in an almost giggly, helpless way — Offerman front-loads the show with many riffs on his first tip out of ten, “Engage in Romantic Love,” and he sees no reason to soften his material for the prudes.

Don’t look to the show for jokes, though there are hilarious bits. Offerman is naturally funny, issuing his dicta (I can hear Offerman’s dorky 13-year-old-boy chortle at that) in the sonorous deadpan that has made Ron Swanson so cherished. Other than jabs at vegetarians (Offerman is very pro-meat), American Ham is good-hearted and inclusive. Offerman’s material on religion and the Bible isn’t the freshest, but it fits into his overarching live-and-let-live philosophy. To him, meat and the outdoors and sex and building things and “getting high and looking at a maple leaf” are the very stuff of life, of joy, and why wouldn’t anyone want to partake of joy? Offerman is a hippie spirit inside a mundane’s body. He’s only a day older than I am, yet he has the aura of a tribal elder, a medicine man with hair on his back.

American Ham was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who also made last year’s The Kings of Summer, featuring Offerman and his wife, soulmate and “legal property” Megan Mullally. Vogt-Roberts serves up a smoothly competent point-and-shoot record of the show, though at two points we cut away to only mildly funny segments in which Offerman quarrels with a lawyer over parody songs he sings during the performance. (Offerman advises us to look the songs up on YouTube.) The director is attached next to Kong: Skull Island, a sequel — I assume — to 2005’s King Kong remake, and considering the relationship Vogt-Roberts has with Offerman, the surest way to get me to see the new Kong movie would be to cast Offerman in it as a brawny, cocksure hunter who gets trampled by Kong. Or, failing that, as Kong himself. Offerman: Meat Island would get my opening-day dollars.

Birdman

November 28, 2014

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Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

November 2, 2014

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The broad black comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas was one of the last movies Robin Williams completed before his suicide in August, and it’s difficult to watch it with this in mind. Williams plays Mitch Mitchler, a bedraggled Wisconsin old-timer who used to be a drunk and emotionally unavailable dad to his son Boyd (Joel McHale). Quite a few scenes show Mitch sitting in his truck or on his son’s front steps looking devastated and depressed. I don’t think Mitch’s demons have much to do with Williams’, but it’s impossible to see Williams in this state without being taken out of the movie — and the largely feeble comedy — on some level. Past a certain point, Williams is expressing desolation and shame and seems all too well-acquainted with them. It casts a sad pall over everything else in the film.

Boyd takes his wife (Lauren Graham) and two kids to the old house in Wisconsin, because his mom (Candice Bergen) wants a family Christmas get-together. Boyd is obsessed with keeping his young son’s innocence about Santa, since Mitch so rudely and drunkenly disillusioned Boyd one Christmas decades ago. Maintaining the kid’s naivete involves spending most of Christmas Eve on the road back to Chicago, where Boyd has stupidly left the kid’s presents. It also involves no fewer than three run-ins with an unfunny highway cop and a near-disastrous encounter with a homeless Santa (Oliver Platt) that really should’ve been fully disastrous if there were to be any point to it, this being a supposedly dark comedy.

Television director Tristram Shapeero (who helmed twenty-some Community episodes, among others), making his feature debut, doesn’t sustain much of a style or a tone; the movie will replace Scrooged or The Ref in nobody’s heart, despite a cast full of ringers (including Clark Duke, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tim Heidecker). The satirical shots at dysfunctional family gatherings are so tired as to be nonexistent, and at about the halfway mark the script just spins its wheels, going back and forth between Williams, McHale and Duke on the road doing unfunny things and the rest of the family back home doing unfunny things — there’s a drunk-dancing scene with Bergen and Graham sure to mortify fans of both actresses, and there’s pointless gross-out ancient-pickle-eating.

Meanwhile, Robin Williams shuffles around looking angry and depressed — more so than the script would justify. More than once I felt I could sense him thinking “Is this it? Is this what it was all for, me doing a TV show that gets cancelled after one season, and then doing low-budget weak tea like this that’ll barely get a theatrical release? And stuff like this is what I have to look forward to getting up in the morning to act in, until the Lewy body dementia takes me apart piece by piece?” I submit that in a better movie none of these thoughts would have been relevant; I would only have been glad to see Williams again. But the man, great as he was, did not always have the greatest judgment in selecting projects. This, sadly, is one of the final examples.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.


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