Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Lady Bird

January 28, 2018

lady-bird-nytGreta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It doesn’t seem to fit the description — it’s wee, technically modest, undemonstrative to the point of obliqueness — and I don’t know that I’d put money on it myself, but the more time I have away from it, the more warmth I feel for it. It’s cozy; it’s fine. Its brushstrokes are light, and it never overextends — or extends, really. Its energies are almost wholly inward-directed. We ride along with the sorrows and temporary joys of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird. Why? The movie doesn’t tell us. Nor does there seem to be a compelling reason to set the story in 2002 and 2003. A lot of Lady Bird — its emotional meanings, specific references — seems locked away from the viewer, known and felt only by Gerwig.

It probably won’t do to speak of male or female styles of movie directing, especially in an art form that has given us Bigelow, Wertmüller, Lexi Alexander. But a movie like, say, Wonder Woman feels different from a male-directed superhero film in a million distinct, at times large and overarching, or sometimes almost imperceptible ways. They are elements that add up and assure you that you are getting a woman’s vision, which is all the more to be valued in an industry where the default — the experience that’s shared on film, and the audience with whom the experience is shared — is (white hetero) male. Lady Bird is unmistakably and unapologetically (white hetero) female. It’s a gentle thing, but far less fragile than it looks; there’s a hidden sadness in it, and strength from the sadness.

Lady Bird is a teenage student at a Sacramento Catholic school. She dabbles in this and that (running for school office, acting in plays), trying to find a self. In that way she’s a bit like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, though she has her own quirks. She’s dying to get out of Sacramento, to go to college in New York. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, wants Lady Bird to be realistic about what school she can get into — and can afford. She has a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, then pairs off with a pompous ass in a band. She ices her best friend for a while in favor of a popular kid, then thinks better of it. Her entire life seems to be a repeating pattern of moving in one direction, backtracking, moving another direction, and so forth. The filmmaking, honoring this, feels diffuse, indecisive.

Actually, it’s right on target, a rare American inner-consciousness portrait that somehow doesn’t feel hermetic. The narrative may not literally reflect Gerwig’s life, but it has her warm and sympathetic touch; her personality can be felt. Lady Bird is far from perfect and often makes bad decisions, but they are her decisions. We never doubt that. In a repressive environment, she does what she can to carve her own space, to meet her own needs (a virgin, she swaps masturbation techniques with her bestie). She isn’t especially looking for a boy until she finds one — in both cases fixating on them while they’re singing (falling in love with their voices, I guess an inverse of The Little Mermaid).

We understand why she feels and acts as she does, and yet our empathy extends to people she has conflict with, such as her mother. Gerwig loves actors and small, telling moments, and actively avoids melodramatic plot turns you might expect. She bears down into mundane scenes and somehow makes them feel fresh by the sensibility that animates them. Gerwig’s obvious fondness for her characters (nobody in the film is all bad — or all good) is contagious. She loves and respects her creations enough not to put them in stupid, well-worn situations; she respects us enough not to foist such tired drama on us. We don’t see so much of that sort of consideration at the movies that we can afford to dismiss it.


I Love You, Daddy

November 11, 2017

i-love-you-daddyWatching the edgy, abandoned-by-its-studio comedy I Love You, Daddy, which may be writer/director Louis C.K.’s last effort for a long while at least, is a saddening experience for one who has admired C.K.’s previous work in stand-up and on TV. In what has to be the most awkward case of timing since Husbands and Wives premiered after the Woody Allen scandal, this movie’s former distributor, The Orchard, mailed out its for-your-consideration screener discs; the screeners arrived a couple of days after the schlubby auteur’s acts of sexual misconduct were confirmed and attached to real names¹, and after C.K. himself acknowledged that the women’s “stories were true.” So now hundreds of critics are sitting with this damn thing, wondering whether to watch it in the first place, and wondering what the hell to do with it once they have watched it.

What I can do with it, having watched it, is to say that I Love You, Daddy requires a great deal of unpacking if one is unwilling to ignore the real life surrounding it. I can say that the movie is clearly the work of a gifted weasel — a man who writes scenes and dialogue that actors can latch onto and make sing, and also a man who has, on several occasions that we know of, pleasured himself in front of women without their stated consent. The film is about perversion and neurosis, as so much of Louis C.K.’s work is. It is also unavoidably funny, due largely to the terrific cast C.K. has assembled. It would be a true bummer if the hilarious apoplexy of, say, Edie Falco as a harried TV producer toiling against an impossible schedule, or the joie de sleaze of Charlie Day as a loutish TV comedy star, were lost in oblivion. Perhaps at some point in the future their contributions, and those of others in the cast, can be viewed and enjoyed.

C.K. plays Glen Topher, a successful television creator working on his second show, which he isn’t crazy about, but a prime-time slot was open and he grabbed it. Glen is also dealing with his rudderless 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz), who finds herself drifting into the orbit of Glen’s filmmaking idol Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who seems to be conceived as a cosmopolitan libertine in the mold of, oh, Woody Allen (whose influence on C.K.’s show Louie and on this film is obvious). Glen is appalled that the 68-year-old genius Leslie has taken an interest in his daughter. He has endless anguished talks about it with various women in his life, most of whom tell him he’s a schmuck, a bad father, a bad man. Even the movie star (Rose Byrne) who admires Glen’s work and may star in his new show soon finds herself regarding him with distaste and frustration.

The Louie persona has always attracted women, despite himself, and then repelled them, because of himself. Louis C.K. is more savage to himself (or to his character, but at this point it’s a distinction without much of a difference) than to anyone else in the movie, but that’s nothing new. What is new, and weird, is that I Love You, Daddy — in form an homage to Woody’s notorious Manhattan — both lionizes Allen’s work and deplores his pervy attention to women much younger. I wish I could say the movie worked as Louis’ apologia for his own skeeviness or as an artistic reckoning with it, but a late scene in which seeming justification for grossness — “Everyone’s a pervert” — is put in the mouth of China’s teenage African-American BFF (Ebonee Noel) is dodgy at best. Louis doesn’t dare voice this himself, so he has what he considers a beyond-criticism source — black and female — do it for him. It’s cowardly. It sucks.

It’s impossible to watch I Love You, Daddy except through the stained scrim of its creator’s actions — same as with Husbands and Wives, really, except that movie seemed to have more under the hood. Allen’s film also weighed in at just an hour and forty-eight minutes (generally he has never let his movies run much longer than that, with a couple of exceptions); C.K.’s goes on, often in bland, static two-shots (nicely photographed in b&w though they are), for two hours and three minutes. The movie has fleetingly interesting things to say about what men think female sexuality should be and about women’s “Oh, really?” response to that.

What if the movie had come from a sexually and personally unimpeachable artist? Then, oddly, it wouldn’t seem to have much point. I Love You, Daddy seems to want to be an excoriation of disgusting maleness from a man who knows the disgustingness all too well, who has lived in it and with it, but Glen isn’t disgusting, just a lame, opportunistic creator and an insufficiently assertive parent. The finger of scorn ultimately points not to Glen or even to Leslie (who seems imperiously sexless) but to the spoiled and flighty China, despite Moretz’s compassionate performance. The source of male agita is a teenage girl who has no inner life, has nothing much except a body to be lusted after, protected, or barely clothed. Which makes this an art-house version of the legendarily creepy ‘80s “comedies” She’s Out of Control or Blame It on Rio, and did we really need one? Even without Louis C.K.’s real-life sliminess, this movie wouldn’t sit well on the stomach.

¹As opposed to his behavior being rumored-about in blind items and such, which is where it had been for years unless you were female and in the comedy community.

Strapped for Danger

October 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


October 1, 2017

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

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

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

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


June 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Louis C.K. 2017

April 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wishful Drinking

January 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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