Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

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 rigorously 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.


March 29, 2015

In Cheatin’, the seventh animated feature by cult favorite Bill Plympton, the plot runs on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a short conversation — if the characters could talk. But this film, like Plympton’s previous Idiots and Angels, has no dialogue, so it takes the central married couple the length of the movie to figure it all out. This is frustrating, to say the least, but let’s give Plympton the benefit of the doubt and assume the frustration is intentional. The central married couple, Ella and Jake (“voiced” by Sophia Takal and Jeremy Baumann in what amounts to a series of grunts and screams), have communication problems. They’re madly in love with each other, but their relationship seems stuck in the physical realm. In brief, they’re humans who don’t realize they’re cartoons.

Other women are always throwing themselves at Jake, but he declines. Then one of the jilted women gives Jake a photo that makes it look as though Ella has been massively unfaithful, and Jake’s despair and rage lead to his own infidelity. I don’t think Plympton is trying to make any big statements about male/female relations; he’s just having fun riffing on a theme, as he always does. Plympton, though, may strike some as a talent that works best in short doses (while die-hard fans will cherish every minute they get). Even at only 76 minutes, Cheatin’ occasionally feels long, and I think that’s because individual sequences — even individual shots — tend to run on just a bit more than they need to. Plympton clearly relishes basking in his own visual exuberance, but after a while we may prefer the narrative, or what passes for it, to move along.

At other points, though, Plympton’s drawn-out strangeness seems the only way for him to work — the unique thing he has to offer as an artist. Nobody will ever call him a stiff cartoonist: bodies bend and stretch for yards, gravity and physics abide by Plymptonian rules when they aren’t disregarded altogether. Cheatin’ at its loosest and most lyrical is superb eye candy. But if an animator is to work at feature length, a story can’t just be a visually luscious riff. Now and again, the movie feels like a compilation of short “Plymptoons” that happen to share a theme and a pair of characters. I should admit, in case it isn’t apparent by now, that I’m not the biggest Plympton fan. I admire his sui generis style and his visual tomfoolery, but something about his stuff leaves me cold — an experience I noted when watching his first feature, 1992’s The Tune.

What’s my issue? I guess I get the sense that Plympton is into animation for its own joyfully manipulative sake, that he loves twisting and tweaking anatomy and nature as far as he can without stampeding into the realm of the abstract. But here’s just one small example in Cheatin’ of what leaves me cold. Jake has just found out (or so he thinks) that Ella has cheated on him. He jumps in his car and takes off. He howls in misery. He races a train. His teardrops bead up and fly behind him. He looks and sounds like a grievously wounded doofus with a nose that resembles nothing so much as a big fat dick. All of this is clever, amusing, and so on. Except it’s not supposed to be. We should be feeling Jake’s pain, or at least relating to it. Instead we chuckle and admire Plympton’s imaginative verve. And if Plympton would let Jake or Ella say a damn word to each other, their problem would be cleared up, and it would be a seven-minute cartoon — which it possibly should’ve been to begin with.

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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.”


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