Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.

Hitler’s Folly

May 29, 2016

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At only 67 minutes, Hitler’s Folly is mercifully brief, but I nearly noped out of it at the 45-minute mark. The conceit of this mockumentary, a puerile effort written and directed by the animator Bill Plympton (The Tune, Cheatin’), is that Hitler’s grand ambition was not world domination but a cartoon version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In one of the film’s many unconvincingly faked “vintage” bits of footage, we see a man being interviewed, identified as an inmate at a concentration camp. The man wants us to know that the camps were misunderstood: They were workplaces for people who were laboring on Hitler’s epic cartoon, and they were so named because everyone had to concentrate very hard on their work. That’s when I almost found something better to do.

But I stuck it out, not that it improved much. There was one joke that almost got a faint chuckle out of me, when Hitler, after the war, finds a job at an ad agency and invents telemarketing. But for the most part the “satire” is terribly tired when it isn’t tone-deaf. We know, of course, that Hitler was a frustrated artist; this was the subject of a little-seen drama called Max, from 2002. Plympton has extrapolated this factoid into an oafish alternate history in which everything Hitler did was on behalf of his big artistic attempt starring his beloved character Downy Duck. There might be a whiff of satire in reimagining Hitler as a monomaniacal Disney, but very little of it has real-world resonance. We don’t, for instance, find many parallels between the two men.

If you want an alternate-history mockumentary about film, it’s hard to outdo Forgotten Silver, the brilliant little jape co-directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes that was so pristinely crafted it fooled the majority of its New Zealand TV audience. Hitler’s Folly isn’t nearly as ingenious; sometimes one suspects that the joke is actually how poorly the photo trickery is faked. At their best, mockumentaries — even if you recognize the actors in them, as with Christopher Guest’s films — have a grain of realism, a veneer of truth, that lulls one into acceptance of their reality. Plympton’s film, though, is too broad — too cartoonish, you could say — to be taken on any level other than a schoolboy riff on the theme of Hitler as artist.

The joke about harmless concentration camps may stick in your craw in a world where Holocaust deniers exist, and likewise, a film that gentles Hitler into a misunderstood cartoonist tends to trivialize the victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocities that Plympton passes off as a mission to bring a Wagner cartoon starring a duck to the world. In general, Plympton doesn’t earn the right to play with Nazi imagery this way, nor does he redeem his audacity with humor, much less wit. The Holocaust, I know, is not untouchable as a subject for dark comedy — the gold standard in this regard remains Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. That film, however (appropriately) unpalatable, had a point and a point of view. Hitler’s Folly doesn’t. It’s a bad idea someone should’ve talked Plympton out of; it’s Plympton’s Folly.

The idea is that we’re seeing secret footage collected by an historian and entrusted to a documentary filmmaker (well-played by Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook, who deserves better). A hidden locked box contains old video as well as brittle old Hitler sketches and priceless comic books, including the first issue of Captain America, with the famous cover of Cap punching out Hitler. Leaving aside the questions of whether Hitler would have kept artwork that disrespected him — and why Captain America is fighting Hitler in the first place, since in the film’s context all Hitler does is work on a movie — I wondered what the issue’s Jewish co-creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom also served in World War II, would have said about Plympton’s little jest. Streaming for free on Plympton’s website starting this week, Hitler’s Folly, I guess, is his Memorial Day gift to a demoralized nation. Gee, thanks, Bill.

Deadpool

May 22, 2016

DEADPOOLDeadpool is a superhero movie for people who hate — or have grown to hate — superhero movies. As the man himself — Special Forces retiree and current mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), aka Deadpool — will be the first to tell you, he isn’t a hero. His superpowers (mutant healing abilities) are granted to him as a side effect of curing his cancer; another side effect, alas, leaves him scarred. Deadpool’s entire goal in the movie is to convince the man responsible for his powers and scars, the British snot Ajax (Ed Skrein), to undo his scars so he can get back together with his fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Save the world? Save the city? Save the block? Nah.

Deadpool nonetheless behaves much like a superhero, in that he fights bad guys, except for the part where he kills them. While Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War agonize over metahumans taking lives, either purposely or accidentally, here comes chipper, cavorting Deadpool to separate many, many heads and limbs from their bodies when he isn’t shooting said bodies full of holes. And all so that his ex-escort girlfriend — for which occupation she is never shamed — won’t find his face repellent. In other words, Deadpool gives up the pretense even of fighting for a greater good, unlike even such a cynical antisuperhero satire as Kick-Ass. Deadpool is highly sexed, casually violent and fluently foulmouthed, and he sees no reason not to be. Perhaps not coincidentally, the movie broke many box-office records upon its February release.

Amusingly, this is tangentially an X-Men movie, as it features two members of that mutant superhero team: the stolid Russian man of steel Colossus, and a character I want to see in a spin-off movie immediately, the sullen Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), whose powers are as excessive as her name. Colossus and N.T.W. step in every so often to lend brawn to Deadpool’s mission, though even Colossus can barely stand against Ajax’s right-hand woman Angel Dust, played by Gina Carano, who seems to have resigned herself to the fact that she can’t act and attitudinizes accordingly. Anyway, few will laugh louder than I if this disreputable, R-rated red-hooded stepchild actually outgrosses the legit X-Men film opening soon.

Directed by Tim Miller, formerly a visual-effects guru, Deadpool makes the most of its peanuts-by-superhero-standards $58 million. The action is hyper-violent but sunny and weightless; it lacks the sadistic stab of the slaughter scenes in Kick-Ass. This movie, unlike Kick-Ass, isn’t trying to moralize with its violence — it’s just PlayStation shoot-the-works splatter with a sneer and a gibe. It never pretends to be “real.” On the other hand, there’s some genuine pathos in Wade’s health situation; he doesn’t want Vanessa to have to watch him die, so he absents himself from her life. She’s appropriately enraged by this. Vanessa, like the other women in the film, takes no crap, and Baccarin has perhaps never been better. Vanessa’s and Wade’s relationship is built on shared callous jokes and fierce sex; since they’re never really romanticized, they come off all the more romantic.

As for Reynolds, this is the role he was made for, and he tears into it as if to make up for the ridiculously terrible earlier version of Deadpool he played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He’s a good and funny actor, and he doesn’t deserve to be haunted by the emerald ghost of Green Lantern for the rest of his life. Reynolds has, improbably, baked his personality into a role in which we almost never see his face. He wants to have good dirty fun and to share it with us. Deadpool is the sort of pop-culture offense all the uptight moralizers always warn you about — a hero-myth with the soul of Larry Flynt.

Accidental Incest

May 8, 2016

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In the affably filthy sex farce Accidental Incest, the title tells the tale: the libertine couple Milton (Johnny Sederquist) and Kendra (Elyssa Baldassarri) both feel like soulmates to each other, but that’s just because they’re technically brother and sister — the separately sired results of their mutual father’s sperm-bank donation. They discover this about a third of the way into the film, and then the plot deals with the consequences, going deeper and darker though no less outrageous. Providence director Richard Griffin, working with a script by Lenny Schwartz based on Schwartz’s play, takes this taboo and good-naturedly manhandles it into service as the premise of a romantic comedy. This, heaven help us, is the ever-transgressive Griffin and Schwartz’s version of a Hollywood meet-cute.

Filmed mostly in microbudget-artsy black and white, Accidental Incest could be described as a boxing match between Kevin Smith and John Waters, with Waters handily winning and then going off to fuck Andy Milligan in a bathroom. The movie has the raffish sexual candor of Smith’s best early comedies, the prankish perversity of Waters, and the all-encompassing hostility of Milligan. Griffin keeps things jumping visually, especially in the sex scenes, edited and rhythmed for comedy rather than eroticism (which, contrasted with the usual po-faced treatment of carnality in American film, just serves to make the festivities more erotic).

The movie signals its stage origins by having the lead characters address us directly, a useful way to cut to the chase. Milton and Kendra have been leaving relationship wreckage everywhere they go, and it becomes clear that the reason is that they hadn’t met the right person yet — i.e., each other. Sederquist, a manic Griffin Dunne lookalike, and Baldassarri, whose smile has a hint of Anne Hathaway innocence, dive into the deep end of sin and hysteria and passion, with Griffin’s eager encouragement. Because these characters start out so scummy and irredeemable, we paradoxically believe that much more in their redemption via taboo.

Griffin’s roots are in disreputable genres — horror, sci-fi — and he and Schwartz throw in some fantasy here; there are angels and a hipster God (Aaron Andrade) who performs a rap. Accidental Incest is partly a musical, and there are some comically bitter or obscene songs here, though not enough to dominate the narrative. They’re essentially what Roger Ebert used to call semi-OLIs — semi-obligatory lyrical interludes; they’re smoothly performed and a welcome way of changing up the tone. The cast is fiercely game, and I confess I laughed hardest at Jamie Dufault’s near-psychotically closeted Alex (Kendra’s ex) and Josh Fontaine (whose comic timing is flawless) as the Gimp-like Adam. Many of the actors are Griffin mainstays, and once again he brings in Michael Thurber, who photographs so beautifully, especially in black and white, and emotes so dead-on satirically that if John Waters ever makes another film he should look to Rhode Island.

If the title Accidental Incest puts you off, truthfully Griffin and Schwartz don’t do much to win you over. It’s as cracked as it sounds. Those who respond to the title with an amused, curious attitude of “Oh, this I gotta see” are probably better-prepared for the party. It’s more sex-positive and less hung-up than the other incest comedy you may have heard of, David O. Russell’s debut Spanking the Monkey. And if it sounds like your cup of iniquity, it could use your help: the movie’s DVD distributor has been gun-shy about it due to its title — and it’s not something you’ll find in a Redbox in any event — so if you’d like to support Griffin and his brand of happy degeneracy, your best bet is video on demand or amazon.com.

Big Trouble in Little China

May 1, 2016

big-trouble-in-little-chinaIf you want to enjoy Big Trouble in Little China the correct way, listen to its director, John Carpenter, and star, Kurt Russell, who will cheerfully tell you that the man you might assume is the hero — intrepid trucker Jack Burton (Russell) — is actually the film’s idiot sidekick. The real hero is Jack’s friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who has the movie’s true heroic arc. Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) has been kidnapped, and he must rescue her. Jack kind of tags along because Wang owes him money and, later, because his truck is stolen and he wants it back. So while Wang goes forward and drives the plot, Jack muscles in and talks like John Wayne and occasionally manages not to shit the bed completely.

Big Trouble in Little China started out as a period Western with martial-arts flavor — something like the later Shanghai Noon, possibly — but was modernized by script doctor W.D. Richter (Buckaroo Banzai), and ended up as both an homage to and example of mystical chop-socky. Audiences in 1986 were simply not ready for it, and it tanked badly in theaters before gaining, like some of Carpenter’s other “failures,” an eager cult on home video. Today it’s generally viewed as a precursor to the cinema of actor-director Stephen Chow, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and everything else made possible in the wake of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The plot is basically an explosion in a clown factory. It needs near-constant exposition, as much to keep us up to speed as to get Jack’s head on straight — he almost never knows what’s going on. He’s the Dumb White Man at sea in Chinatown, where the local customs are bizarre and incomprehensible to him. The narrative is almost a parody of “Asian inscrutability.” The gist of it is that Miao Yin, along with another, possibly mixed-race woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), have been captured so that they can be married off to the 2000-year-old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong), because the women both have green eyes and this is vital to lift the curse that keeps Lo Pan decrepit and/or an incorporeal spirit. You can kind of see why Jack says “Huh?” a lot.

Various superpowered minions of Lo Pan’s show up and do their elemental specialties. Monsters lurch into the frame, mostly unexplained. Yet Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy — a giggly, jostling adventure that sneers in the face of logic. I’m not sure why a reporter (Kate Burton) is around at all, other than to give Gracie someone to talk to and pass the Bechdel Test. Pretty much everyone in the movie is there to aid or frustrate Wang Chi’s goal; Jack frequently does one or the other, sometimes both at once. Carpenter and his favored cinematographer Dean Cundey (doing his fifth and final work for Carpenter) keep the action colorful and bright, even when rain pours down; a more poetic title for the movie might be Blue Lightning, Red Gowns, after the magic weapon of one villain and the dresses Gracie and Miao Yin wear during Lo Pan’s ceremony. This PG-13 film, despite its frequent shooting and bashing and swordplay, is also completely bloodless except for the blood-draw in the aforementioned ceremony.

The movie contains as well the single drop-dead funniest moment in all of Carpenter’s filmography, one that Kurt Russell can’t even get through talking about without guffawing. I won’t give it away. But watch not only for an ill-advised show of boisterous force but for a shot a few seconds later of “our hero” missing all the fun. Big Trouble in Little China was significantly before its time in more ways than one: it was a goofily meta satire in an era of mostly fearfully sincere action (think of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Eastwood), razzing tropes that American audiences hadn’t yet been taught to question. Kurt Russell is front and center on the burnished Drew Struzan poster; I don’t think Dennis Dun is anywhere on there at all. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Snickering all the way, Carpenter and Russell suckered audiences into sitting down for a White Savior action picture but gave them a moron who only wins in the end because of “reflexes.”

The Big Short

January 10, 2016

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Who is the hero of The Big Short, the semi-comedic semi-drama about the implosion of the housing market and the rise of those who profited from it? Is it “Dr.” Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the hedge-fund manager who first noticed the subprime mortgages’ soft underbelly? Is it Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge-fund manager who carries around deep fury about the state of the system and the suicide of his brother? Is it Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), former Wall Street wolf turned retired Jedi of finance? To me, the hero of this bulging package of facts and jokes is its film editor, Hank Corwin. Since his baptism of fire on such teeming Oliver Stone hornets’ nests as JFK and Natural Born Killers, Corwin has worked selectively, adding two Terrence Malick epics to his resumé, and he cuts The Big Short with his usual instinct for allusive, propulsive storytelling, moving us along at a clip yet not too fast to process everything.

Clarity is needed with a dense story like this one, as well as an unfailing eye for the telling detail and the amusing sidebar. The director, Adam McKay, is a veteran of several Will Ferrell comedies, but he showed in The Other Guys that he had things to say about the rich soaking the poor with Ponzi schemes, and here he sharpens his blade anew. I don’t know that McKay should go on being Hollywood’s fiduciary moralist, but he’s clearly on the side of the angels and of the entertainers. On a few occasions, he recruits a random celeb to explain something or another to us, such as when collateralized debt obligations are likened to seafood stew. Like Stone’s two Wall Street sermons, The Big Short has been made for “the average people” who, says the irked Mark Baum, will be the ones paying for the banks’ fraudulence and hubris, even if we didn’t then (in 2008, when Michael Burry’s predictions came to pass) know how, or why.

We find out how and why, with the help of a cast gnawing hungrily on cynical, profane dialogue. Rageaholic Baum gets all the wounded humanity Steve Carell can bring to him, and Christian Bale makes Burry the awkward, blinkered loner that Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne would be in real life. Ryan Gosling swoops in as our narrator, a trader who hears about Burry’s calculations and gets Baum and his firm in on the scavenging. Gosling’s usual smugness works for the role; he sometimes addresses the camera and acknowledges what a prick we must think he is. This is primarily a male-id movie, though Marisa Tomei (as Baum’s wife) and Melissa Leo (as a banker who grudgingly drops some truth on Baum) brighten things. The film is, I admit, too busy working out how to explain why a man who pays his rent ends up living in his car to bother much with gender parity. Maybe next time.

The Big Short starts out antic and satirical (though it doesn’t reach the Homeric excesses of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street) but eventually spirals down into a spun-out sigh of resignation. Brad Pitt — more Robert Redford-like than ever in his tousled hairdo and salt-and-pepper beard — at one point turns to two ecstatic young investors and reminds them that their fortune will be built on the backs of real, suffering people who, if the economy tanks, will lose their jobs, their homes, maybe their lives. It’s a sobering reality blast, and we see Mark Baum almost horizontal with despair and Michael Burry lamenting that “nobody will talk to me, except through lawyers,” both much, much richer but that much less happy. An additional chilling piece of information: at the end, we’re told that Burry, the man who against all accepted wisdom bet against the economy and prospered, is now investing primarily in water. Is Burry betting that we’re headed for a grim meathook future á la Mad Max? A bit of research shows his reasoning is less ominous and more optimistic than that, but the factoid still leaves us with a shudder. Who else out there knows important, disquieting things and isn’t being listened to?

A Very Murray Christmas

December 6, 2015

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In the Netflix Original holiday special A Very Murray Christmas, Bill Murray exists in a weird holiday-special reality where some celebrities appear as themselves and others are playing roles. Chris Rock, for instance, exists here as himself, but Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph don’t; neither do Rashida Jones or Jason Schwartzman. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, just as there wasn’t in most star-studded holiday specials since the dawn of TV. If it’s funny for you to be up there playing yourself, as with George Clooney or Miley Cyrus or Bill Murray, you play yourself. Everyone else acts, although the milieu here is dark and artsy enough that even those playing themselves can be said to be playing fictional roles.

The special was directed by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer. It plays like an off-market continuation of Scrooged, which Glazer cowrote, and Lost in Translation, which Coppola wrote and directed. It has the vague form of the former (we gotta put on a Christmas show!) and the ennui of the latter (what does it matter if we put on a Christmas show or not?). The two moods conflict entertainingly. Murray is stuck in a swank New York City hotel while a blizzard batters the metropolis. Nobody can make it into the city to join Murray for the live holiday special he’s obligated to host. Then the power goes out and there’s no more pretense of a show within the show. There is now only the show we’re watching, full of bored people who congregate around Murray to sing tunes both holiday and non-holiday.

Murray never had much of a singing voice; his Nick the lounge singer got by on sheer Vegas brio, and his karaoke crooning in Lost in Translation spoke volumes with its self-aware sadness. His performances here don’t have those Nick quotation marks around them — the joke isn’t that Bill Murray is the one singing these songs. The Murray we see here seems to want to discover some truth in the melodies, particularly the opener “Christmas Blues.” Accompanied by Paul Shaffer on piano — oddly, the only SNL veteran here from Murray’s era as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player among several other SNL-ers from later years — Murray brings a melancholy dignity to the music. What he lacks in technique (he wouldn’t make it far on The Voice, but then neither would Tom Waits or Warren Zevon) he compensates for in open emotion.

The special is light on narrative and wants to come across as tossed-off, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to unpack here. The bluesy, mildly sardonic tone will make A Very Murray Christmas a welcome perennial for those who resent the season’s omnipresence, its commercialism, its bullying insistence that everyone celebrate in the same way. After Murray has had too much brandy and passes out, he dreams that George Clooney and Miley Cyrus ride in on a sleigh to save the show, and they bring some razzle-dazzle (Clooney more or less hilariously Dean Martins his way through “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”). After that, though, Murray is more or less left alone again in his hotel room, albeit with Paul and the room-service guy. He looks out his window at the city, embodying the cliché of being alone among millions of strangers, same as in Tokyo.


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