Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Bill & Ted Face the Music

August 30, 2020

Bill-Ted-Face-the-Music-WP-1024x587

Before watching Bill & Ted Face the Music, I was assured I didn’t have to rewatch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) — it’s true, you don’t — which was good, because I didn’t especially feel like rewatching them. (I last saw them both in ’91.) Having now seen the third installment, I do feel like going back and revisiting the younger Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves). B&TFTM has the effect of making us look fondly anew on these two doofus besties, who grew up to be pretty decent men — not perfect, not successful, but decent. The new movie is as good-natured as the prior two — maybe even moreso, because Bill and Ted no longer do that “we’re alive, let’s hug” bit and then back off each other saying “Fag.” They’ve grown into men who just hug.

In the intervening 25 years since Bogus Journey (which unfolded in 1995, so we’re told), the titular duo’s band Wyld Stallyns has plummeted off the charts and into wedding-party oblivion. They still dig making music, though, and they’re alive to the spirit of experimentation — at that wedding party, Ted breaks out a theremin and Bill commences Tuvan throat singing. The wonder of this is that Bill and Ted never come across as pathetic, not even in other timelines when they’re pretending to be rich, famous musicians or when they’re muscleheaded convicts. The pair’s happy acceptance of life remains a pure constant across the decades. But the movie, it turns out, isn’t really even about them.

Bill and Ted have married the medieval princesses they met in Excellent Adventure, and each union has produced a daughter named after each father’s BFF. So Ted’s daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine, who precisely nails the ol’ Ted vibe) is named Billie; Bill’s blonde, easily amazed daughter (Samara Weaving) goes by Thea. Bill and Ted are tasked to save reality, which has become temporally shambolic, by writing a song that will unite the world. As Bill and Ted bounce back and forth in time, trying to steal the song from various future Bills and Teds, Billie and Thea go off on their own trying to piece together an epic band to deliver the song — Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Ling Lun, and a percussionist cavewoman named Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller, who has drummed for Beyoncé). Ultimately, the music that must be faced here is that Bill and Ted have to complete the process of being good husbands, fathers, and stewards of music that rocks. They have to step aside. They’re not the band, they play back-up now. This is a bittersweet message for Generation X, who now pass the baton (did we ever really have it?) to millennials and zoomers. The young and hungry and energetic can take over.

Not that Keanu and Alex lack energy here. Keanu can still activate that carefree beam, but as Owen Gleiberman noted, he has a more somber resting face now — he actually always had it, going back to River’s Edge and Permanent Record. But the face he wears now is hard-earned; it has the dents and scrapes of experience and loss. He seems to be having fun here, and believe me, I’m the last person to begrudge Keanu a fun time. Neither he nor Alex Winter seem to be doing this for any reason other than hanging out, goofing around, rocking some tunes. (In that respect, Jay and Silent Bob filled the void Bill and Ted left.) Bill & Ted Face the Music is sweetly nostalgic, yet never looks back on its own past. Growth and progression seem to be the goals, which partly means raising daughters to be weird and quirky, and to be excellent to each other. There’s a blessed sanity to the warmth and kindness of Bill and Ted and pretty much everyone else in the film — even Death (William Sadler again), who just wants to lay down sick bass lines. I wouldn’t say, as some have, that Bill & Ted Face the Music is “the movie we need right now.” But I sympathize with those who do. There isn’t a whisper of meanness anywhere in it. Its soul is safe and soft. 

The Return of the Living Dead

August 24, 2020

rotld

It doesn’t feel right, somehow, for a punk, gory, young and snarky thing like The Return of the Living Dead to be 35 years old. But here we are (it was released August 16, 1985). Though writer-director Dan O’Bannon was a busy screenwriter in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Alien, Total Recall) and directed one other film (1991’s The Resurrected), Return feels like a one-off, almost the Never Mind the Bollocks of ‘80s horror — fast, furious, and farcical. It’s a mammoth amount of fun, with a sharp trashy punk/new wave soundtrack and a trio of perfect performances by middle-aged actors in the midst of posturing, attitudinizing youth. It’s the three older guys, I think, who make Return not just great crappy fun but just plain great.

To give you an example of the level of acting craft: there’s a scene between Clu Gulager, as the owner of a warehouse, and Don Calfa, who runs the mortuary across the way, and I would put it up against any scene anywhere. Gulager wants to use Calfa’s crematorium. Why? Well, because he has several garbage bags full of writhing undead human body parts, and he needs to incinerate them. Calfa takes one look at the bags and says, what the hell? Gulager says, “…Rabid weasels.” The exchange gets weirder and weirder, and Gulager and Calfa effortlessly find the hilarious reality in it, and I’m serious, acting gets no finer than this. And this in what’s designed to be a throwaway zombie flick for bored ‘80s teens. Which it also is, but brilliantly.

Return was O’Bannon’s firecracker rewrite of a script by Night of the Living Dead’s Russell Streiner and John Russo, who’d envisioned it as a serious sequel to that George Romero classic. O’Bannon made it more of a riff; Night is referenced but not named, as a movie that was loosely based on events in Return’s universe. Tanks of toxic guck sit in the basement of Gulager’s warehouse, operated by James Karen, the third middle-aged guy, who accidentally punctures one of the tanks when showing the ropes to new hire Thom Matthews. Karen, one of the great That Guy character actors, expertly sets the film’s irreverent tone. He’s every older guy who showed you around on your summer job, coming off as a know-it-all but actually just as dumb as anyone. Truly punk, Return of the Living Dead has little respect for humans as a self-preserving species.

The body parts go up in flames; the smoke commingles with gathering storm clouds, and re-animating rain falls on the nearby cemetery. A small group of punks hang out there, waiting for their friend Matthews. The burning rain falls on them too, and soon re-awakened corpses are chasing them all over, craving their brains. Punks in 1985? Well, the movie is set in Kentucky; maybe they’re Kentucky punks who took a while to get the memo. (The post-punk delight Repo Man had opened a year and a half earlier, and yet the two movies seem a natural double feature.) Strangely, the girls (Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Beverly Randolph) come across more vividly than do the young guys, who all seem temperamentally interchangeable except maybe Suicide (Mark Venturini), who gets a tombstone-grandstanding speech (“Nobody understands me, you know that?”) that links him with the whiny crime-doing punks in Repo Man.

I have affection and respect for all of George Romero’s zombie films, but Return of the Living Dead occupies a particularly fond piece of my heart. It’s edited (by Robert Gordon, beautifully) for comedic timing, not horror, and mostly acted that way, too. By the time we get to Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), who authorizes the ultimate solution in a Lynch-like deadpan over the phone (“I see. And what did you do then? … And what did they do?”), we can add Bob Newhart to the list of influences on this sarcastic, winking apocalyptic cartoon that proves the utility of paramedics once and for all. 1985 was a great year for party movies. Return of the Living Dead goes that one better, asking you if you wanna party, and then giving it to you. It is, after all, party time.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

July 19, 2020

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

March 30, 2020

holygrailFor all the talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the Python troupe’s first “proper” movie — with a narrative and everything, unlike their previous film, the sketch assortment And Now for Something Completely Different — it is still, in large part, a sketch assortment. The film turns 45 this month, and in the intervening years, its bits of business have become every bit as iconic as the boys’ greatest hits from Flying Circus. “Bring out your dead.” The Knights Who Say Ni. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. And so on. The movie’s anarchic, shambolic nature (and the abruptness of the troupe’s desire to get on with it and get out of a bit) will shock a string of laughs out of the first-time (like-minded) viewer, but past a certain point, as it did this most recent time I sat with it, it becomes simply a warm bowl of comfort food. The film’s world of amiable nonsense looks so much better than the world of frightening nonsense we now occupy.

The filmmaking duo of Python, the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam), cut their teeth here. Having no idea how to make a film, they taught themselves how to make a film by making this film. It shows, though charmingly. Occasionally there is a striking image that links Holy Grail to Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and so forth, but largely it’s a slovenly piece of work directorially, though not necessarily in a bad way. The Pythons, after all, were thumbing their noses at the very concept of films, or epic films. As a film artist, Terry Gilliam grew astronomically in the ten years between Holy Grail and Brazil. Terry Jones, bless his soul, did not improve. The Jones-directed Life of Brian, naggingly funny as it often is, is as crude as the crudest parts of Holy Grail, and he continued to prove in such uneven attempts as Erik the Viking that filmmaking was not his strength. (I would say that aside from performing, Jones excelled as a writer and historian, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)

None of this is to throw shade at the film as a cult object and cultural going concern (even though the lucrative spin-off musical Spamalot ended up costing the boys 800,000 pounds in legal fees and royalties). We settle into the film’s ramshackle absurdity very quickly, as soon as the credits start being subtitled in increasingly baffling “Swedish.” We all agree to accept the “story” of King Arthur (the perfectly cast Graham Chapman) assembling his knights in search for the Grail, though usually the agreed-upon illusion of this as a story we’re being told doesn’t last long. There’s just too much meta-commentary for that illusion to hold firm. I don’t remember, say, Airplane! even at its most chaotic calling its own structure and credibility as a movie into question the way Holy Grail does. I think it was Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 who floated the notion that we may as well be watching an asylum escapee who thinks he’s King Arthur, and the assorted goofs and loons accompanying him. Like Life of Brian, this film has little respect for mob illogic; a straight line could be drawn from the “Burn the witch” bit to the easily gulled crowds of followers in Brian.

I’ve seen Holy Grail on cable, on video, on the big screen (possibly a 20th-anniversary showing at the Coolidge Corner), and now on Netflix. All the things I appreciate in it — its restless, reckless imagination and its insistence on using its budgetary limitations for comic effect — are still there. Much as I love Python, I find a little of them goes a long way for me, and my watch beckoned a couple of times here, as it does during all their other feature-length romps. (It’s possible that their cinematic swan song, The Meaning of Life, has held up the best solely by virtue of not having been quoted to death.) Still, Holy Grail has a rumpled, unpretentious quality that ties it to other well-loved British cult films like Withnail & I and much of Edgar Wright’s output. It is the very definition of “right, boys, let’s go putter around these Scottish castles and see what we come back with.” The comedy may be harsh at times — its quantity of (glaringly fake) gore may raise eyebrows among parents who take its PG rating on faith — but its impulse to entertain via what amounts to a clothesline of blackout sketches is reassuringly human.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

March 8, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 4.05.34 PM Should you find yourself detained by the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, there’s something I’d like you to look for. Some movies have an injury-to-the-eye motif; this Charlie’s Angels has an injury-to-the-throat motif. People, usually faceless minions, are knocked out with a carotid pinch; others are decommissioned by trank dots from an Altoids tin, stuck, of course, to their necks, or shot in the neck by trank darts; there’s a scene where an Angel-in-training is captured and restrained by a metal collar fastened around, yep, you guessed it; and when an Angel gets her wings, the official tattoo goes on the back of — where? Got it in one. What this means, I have no idea, other than that perhaps the movie’s writer, Elizabeth Banks, who also directed, had a sore throat.

I remember very little else about Charlie’s Angels an hour after watching it, and I really want to; I really wanted to like it. I am, after all, on record as enjoying not only 2000’s Charlie’s Angels but also its sequel; this has gotten me, I suspect, disqualified from many friendships, disinvited from the best parties. But those movies’ director, McG, along with Angels-of-the-day Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, delivered wedges of pop cheese that also spoke raucously for grrl power. Yes, there was a certain amount of “male gaze” going on (though not as much as you’d think), but it was always respectful, in its way, and assured its audience that women could be sexy and kick ass. Well, that lesson’s been learned, and now we get Angels whose dress-up scenes seem to carry a mildly … icky undertone. The camera no longer moves back to show them off; it moves close, sometimes in media res, to emphasize the sexy outfits are just costumes to be discarded along with their accompanying identity. The movie seems more awed by the promise of a huge wardrobe — of an abundance of choice — than by the actual stuff in it.

It’s not that this Charlie’s Angels is grim and gritty, like The Rhythm Section or something. It’s as light and fluffy as its predecessors, timed more for comedy than for action thrills. Banks and veteran cinematographer Bill Pope keep the proceedings warmly lit by the sun or by generous indoor light. It’s not dark and junky-looking, and Kristen Stewart, whose work I gave up on years ago, surprises with a wild-child performance that has the side benefit of adding some stealth queer energy. She seems to be keeping herself mildly amused, but her co-workers, newbie Naomi Scott and hardened MI-6 veteran Ella Balinska, don’t have a lot of personality or quirks — not even something like Cameron Diaz’s daffy daydream of dancing on Soul Train. The previous Angels risked looking like goofballs (indicating the knockabout sensibility of Drew Barrymore, who exec-produced the other two films and retains that role here). Here, they have no womanly foibles (like, say, Drew’s habit of falling for terrible men). They’re positioned as you-go-grrl action figures to represent persistence and rebellion.

The newbie Angel’s life is a miserable porridge of mansplaining and male assumption of credit for her ideas before the Angels swoop in and save her. Men are even less useful here than in the other two; heteronormative affection seems an afterthought. I’m all for what the movie is trying to express, but the MacGuffin (a gizmo that provides constant sustainable energy but can be weaponized) is tattered spy stuff, and when the script attempts to make us second-guess a character that anyone with a brain can figure out is on the level, it’s a bit insulting. Like I said, I wanted to enjoy this, to shelve it alongside the other two. But nothing in it really pops. It’s loaded with sugary grrl-power songs on the soundtrack (heavy on Ariana Grande), but those don’t pop, either. It’s like watching people pretending to have fun, instead of actually having fun and sharing it with us. Going back to that throat motif, the movie really does feel pinched, constrained, tranquilized — much the way a female filmmaker might feel when making a $48 million movie for a major corporation (and knowing that she and other female directors will be penalized for the movie’s potential box-office failure in a way male directors never are). It needed more of Drew Barrymore’s messy what-the-hell brio, but maybe, sadly, this isn’t the time for that.

Knives Out

December 15, 2019

knives out Rian Johnson’s amiably masterful Knives Out has been a surprise sleeper hit in the past few weeks, and I think I know why: It takes a lot of tensions and absurdities of today and turns them into a comforting evening’s entertainment. The genre is murder-mystery, and the tone is somewhere between wicked and tongue-in-cheek, but the message is an odd partner to all that: “Kindness will win.” Beyond that, I owe you the courtesy of saying practically nothing about the plot, other than that wealthy mystery-novel writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies under suspicious circumstances and there are many people who could be responsible.

Except there aren’t, because we see fairly early on how Harlan died — except for the parts we don’t learn about till later. Harlan’s family comes to his mansion for his 85th birthday, and all of them are terrible. His grim-faced daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her sleazy husband (Don Johnson); their black-sheep son (Chris Evans); Harlan’s saturnine son (Michael Shannon) and his racist wife (Riki Lindhome); Harlan’s GOOP-like daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her performative-liberal daughter (Katherine Langford). Harlan’s only friend is his personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). When Harlan turns up dead, someone calls in the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and we’re off.

Johnson writes and directs with speed and clarity; this thing ticks along beautifully. The dialogue, especially that which has little to do with the mystery and everything to do with establishing character, is sharp but juicy enough to push this into the arena of comedy. The character work is as crucial as the mystery plot, because Knives Out doesn’t, as you’d think, center on the grandly hypothesizing Benoit Blanc (though oh what fun Daniel Craig has with the accent, the intonations, the expansive wave of a cigar). It focuses on Marta, who has very real motives, rooted in current pain, to do what she does. Benoit finds her so trustworthy — for she literally cannot tell a lie, or else she’ll vomit — he enlists her as his Watson.

I guess I’m a Rian Johnson fan — I’ve seen four out of his five movies (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and this) and enjoyed them. They are truly ornaments to their respective genres, but they also share a certain regard for decency in surroundings that don’t always reward it. Johnson has, with Knives Out, made a liberal fable disguised as a murder mystery, a fable where the characters run the spectrum between Nazi and SJW, between skeptic and mystic, and like most of us are flawed and complicated. The nice thing about Marta, the movie’s one true hero, is that she’s drawn so skillfully as a selfless person of the type that’s usually incidental to someone else’s story. Harlan’s family, selfish jerks all, envision themselves as the center of their story — don’t we all, though? And Harlan himself, he gets to go out in the most triumphant way a man like him can. But he is the object of the story; Marta is the subject. Ana de Armas’ soft features and Margaret Keane eyes can’t hurt her credibility as an angel among demons. Marta is humble, smart, reflexively compassionate; we gravitate to her. Even the great Benoit Blanc seems a little full of himself.

Given how much the movie pits itself against Trumpism, explicitly in dialogue or subtextually, its success has been heartening (after its third weekend in theaters it was still in the top three). Knives Out speaks for kindness, intelligence, generosity, truth, and sharing the wealth. The way it’s been marketed is a little tricky, though — for one thing, it de-emphasizes Marta, and makes this look like the sort of white-people murder-mystery dinner that might put off the same viewers who would really dig where it actually ends up. On the other hand, it’s going to lure in a bunch of well-to-do white folks, attracted by the delectable promise of a genteel genre piece, only to spit full in their faces. Or vomit, as the case may be.

Dolemite Is My Name

October 27, 2019

dolemite_screenshot Eddie Murphy has been in movies for thirty-seven years, but Dolemite Is My Name is the first time he has played a real-life person — Rudy Ray Moore, the self-described “ghetto expressionist” who rose up by making records and then movies that turned the African-American urban experience into ribald slapstick. Moore was already 48 years old when his first movie, Dolemite, was released in 1975; it helped expand his cult, which has survived his death, in 2008, at age 81. Dolemite Is My Name celebrates Moore as a hustler and an anti-mainstream creative; it fits right in with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s previous films (Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes).

Murphy brings not only his still razor-sharp comedic instincts but a certain gravitas, a whiff of defeat, to his performance. The stakes seem higher, the obstacles to success taller, than in those other weird-show-biz biopics. Moore is a black man pushing fifty; in the words of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, “If you were gonna make it, you woulda made it before now.” Murphy plays Moore as if hearing those words on repeat in his head. There’s desperation under his confidence, and a hot drive to surpass his abusive, belittling father. Perhaps Murphy, 58, needed some years under his belt, some failures and humbling, before he could play Moore with truth and honor. (The character of Dolemite is a different story; Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and many other Murphy heroes were essentially slimmer, sleeker Dolemites.)

Directed by Craig Brewer (who’s also helming Murphy’s Coming to America sequel), Dolemite Is My Name settles, in its second half, into a tongue-in-cheek, half-irreverent making-of-Dolemite comedy. It doesn’t make the mistake of holding up Dolemite as any kind of art. Watch the 1975 film again and you’ll see it transcends its amateurishness with its eagerness to please — packing its 90 minutes with sex and violence, it comes close to being a “good parts only” guilty pleasure. Yet it also stops dead so that Dolemite can unspool one of his rhyming stories, the progenitors of hip-hop, for an audience of appreciative street dudes (and later in his nightclub). The sense we get from the new biopic is that Dolemite may not be everyone’s idea of art, but it is pure expression. Moore took inspiration from the signifying of winos and junkies, put his own spin on it, and delivered it to those who laughed at its familiarity and those just discovering it. It is, in its way, art.

The biopic stays bright and colorful despite its structure of ups and downs — Moore and his crew work hard, sweat, and improvise to get that damn film in the can. Murphy is surrounded by ringers like Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and especially Wesley Snipes, as Dolemite’s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, pretty much the only participant with any Hollywood experience. Snipes is to this movie what Burt Reynolds was to Boogie Nights; he brings all his film roles and all our knowledge of his offscreen foibles to his portrait of a jaded Tinseltown satellite (dining out on having played an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby) who offers hope to a despairing Moore at one point. Watching Snipes up there with Murphy carries levels of associations and memories, mostly warm. At this point, both men, once kings, seem to have passed through ego into human-scaled consciousness, and therefore become kings anew.

As in Ed Wood, the hero here gathers a group of misfits around him to achieve the common goal of a Z-budget flick. Moore works with blacks, whites, gays, Jews, and of course women to realize his dream — the movie is good-hearted, though it sort of underplays Dolemite’s casual misogyny (at one point in the 1975 film Dolemite deals his lover a couple quick slaps in her face before resuming coitus). You could watch Dolemite Is My Name and miss that Dolemite is a pimp; the women in Dolemite are there to act as Dolemite’s kung-fu enforcers, but they’re also there to show their merchandise. Once again, an Alexander/Karaszewski script softens some of the reality (don’t think too hard about how D’Urville Martin is played as somewhat gay and the never-married Moore, about whom rumors have flown in recent years, isn’t¹). But generally this is a convivial and compassionate tribute to creation by any means necessary.

¹On the other hand, much is made of Moore’s being nervous about shooting one of Dolemite‘s sex scenes until Da’Vine Joy Randolph as his confidante Lady Reed suggests that the scene could be played for laughs. We never see Moore with any girlfriends, either.

Booksmart

September 8, 2019

booksmart The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.

Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago. In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)

The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.

Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.

I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.

Wine Country

May 12, 2019

wine-country2-780x520 The women in Wine Country are such good company that I hate to complain that the script is a little underdone. So mostly I won’t. The movie is really just an excuse to get Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer in the same room, as well as fellow Saturday Night Live writing veterans Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, and also Tina Fey for a few scenes, and other funny women of newer or elder vintage. Essentially, if you were female and responsible for some laughs on SNL in the early ‘00s, Wine Country is your class reunion. And like class reunions, this occasion elicits some looking inward; the plot has Abby (Poehler) throwing a 50th-birthday trip for Rebecca (Dratch), and they and the four other friends who come along face various fears connected to being a woman of a certain age.

To be honest, though, Wine Country contends more with generational conflict than with gender conflict. Other than Jason Schwartzman as a house boy providing food and sex when needed, a barely glimpsed husband, a doctor who quickly gets hooted out of the room, and a couple others, males pretty much don’t exist in this movie, or are irrelevant. On the other hand, Generation X resentment towards millennials is all over Wine Country, which may limit its audience a bit. As I’m Gen-X myself, this shouldn’t bother me, but along about the second hour the millennial-bashing wears a bit thin. By the time we get to the empty-headed thirtysomething waitress/artist with a show devoted to Fran Drescher on The Nanny, the fear and anger of one generation towards its youngers are unmistakable.

Maybe it’s nothing personal, though — the general beef these ladies have is not younger women but no longer being younger women. Fear of the future manifests as taking comfort in the past (see the ladies’ “DUI” guilty-pleasure ‘80s playlist; the movie is also scored by former Prince revolutionaries Wendy & Lisa). What these women all have in common is that, decades ago, they worked at a pizza place and became friends; they’re not all the same age, but they share pop-culture experiences and similar trajectories. One works in an office, one’s a therapist, one’s a TV star on the wane, etc. They’re all fairly well-to-do; nobody’s struggling like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, a movie with a more finely tuned script than this one. A lot of the funnier parts sound improvised, no shock considering improv master Poehler was also the director.

The writing isn’t bad, really; it just feels at times like a collection of sequences governed by a checklist. Mortality, check. Disappointing hubby, check. Job security threatened by the kids today, check twice. (Is Amy Poehler that nervous about aging out of Baby Mama-type roles?) Fortunately this cast is full of entertainers, and they treat the script (credited to Emily Spivey, who perhaps modestly keeps her own character largely sidelined, and Liz Cackowski) as a blueprint to bounce riffs off each other. For instance, I know a raccoon was in the script because someone on the film crew took the time to put a pawprint on a glass door, but the exchange between Dratch and Rudolph about how you can tell it’s a father raccoon sounds gloriously off-the-cuff. There are probably hours of great outtakes we’ll never see on DVD because this is a Netflix movie.

For millennial readers bristling at yet another piece of entertainment that shames them, I would also point out that Wine Country brings in a ringer — Cherry Jones, of the late-Boomer period, as a Tarot reader who hilariously puts the ladies in their place with bleak, accurate assessments of their present and future. (Take that, you Gen-X whiners!) The Tarot works according to archetype, and so does the movie; the characters are full of quirks and whimsical devils, so they seem fresh and individualized. The cast are all smart, snarky women who would get bored playing stereotypes, not archetypes. (Tina Fey’s character, the wildly rich owner of the house where the women are staying, is agreeably hard to pin down; she contains multitudes, like everyone else here.) It’s a real comfort-food movie, and that’s apparently all Poehler and her team wanted to make. Don’t they deserve to? Don’t we deserve to have one?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

April 22, 2019

donquixote It’s well-nigh impossible to assess Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating, oft-foiled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as just, you know, a movie. It became, in the thirty years since Gilliam first wanted to make it, the ultimate unrealized project and the ultimate Gilliam project — the two seem synonymous at this point. (Some of Gilliam’s aborted films — the list includes The Defective Detective and Theseus and the Minotaur — play better in our heads than some of his actual films of recent years play in reality.) And, oh, would that it had stayed unmade, to shine and thunder in our imaginations forevermore. But, alas, after several false starts and story changes, a film by Terry Gilliam called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote now stands before us. I feel a bit fond of it, because the whole thing understandably expresses a certain happy relief that’s been absent from Gilliam’s work for a while. But I don’t think I want to see it again.

The story now involves Toby (Adam Driver), a jaded director of TV commercials who started out as an artsy, idealistic filmmaker. Toby is in Spain shooting an ad that involves Don Quixote tilting at a windmill; after hours, he encounters, on a bootleg DVD, a short film he made in a nearby village years ago about … Don Quixote. I doubt this is meant as a coincidence, and indeed as Toby the spoiled Hollywood player becomes Toby the soiled squire, the fantasy world of delusion begins to seem here like a virus, highly contagious and fast-acting, spread by the combustible machine of a film set. In part, Gilliam wants to tie filmmaking back into its origins as a series of suggestive images that don’t quite cohere into a sustained narrative. In other words, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — brilliant and scattered — is the same film Gilliam has been making for fifty years now.

Toby is drawn back to the village where he first animated Don Quixote, and finds the same non-actor — Javier (Jonathan Pryce), the shoemaker Toby cast as his Quixote — who now believes he is Quixote. He, of course, thinks Toby is Sancho Panza, and together they go on “adventures” that seem to drift in and out of reality, through various layers of representation. This may sound terrific, and you may spend some time feeling that Gilliam was somehow meant to be thwarted so many times in making the film, so that he could age into it. And indeed, there are some small threads of pathos that were probably easier for Gilliam to access as a 77-year-old man than they would have been at age 47. But though the plot feels busy, not much really happens other than the narrative eating itself. It gets repetitive; people are always unmasking, revealing their or others’ true selves. After a while we don’t care. I checked the time, aghast to discover there was more than an hour of this to go.

My fondness for the enterprise begins with Jonathan Pryce’s warm, surefooted portrait of Quixote as a man happy and fulfilled in his delusions. Pryce, of course, more or less played Quixote, tilting at the impersonal windmills of bureaucracy, in Gilliam’s ur-masterpiece Brazil, and here he is again, confident on his steed, driven by visions of the pure Dulcinea much as Sam Lowry was goosed out of his drone-tedium by the woman of his dreams. The picaresque, rambling narratives that so attract Gilliam are remarkably consistent. They’re also filled with two-dimensional people, like his honking, muttering animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the day. Gilliam actually can make a movie with real, complex people — flip back to 1991’s The Fisher King, Gilliam’s second masterpiece (a textbook example of a film made by a man who just turned fifty, I now realize). But this fantasist prefers to paint in bold, hyperbolic colors and thick lines.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is almost unavoidably a disappointment. If it had come out in the early ‘90s, or even in the early ‘00s, as just the next Gilliam movie, it wouldn’t have gathered the weight of our speculation, hope, frustration, and anticipation, which this movie simply cannot support (no movie could). Its effect on anyone who still cares enough to see it will have nothing to do with the mild, disjointed film itself and everything to do with all the ironies and mishaps surrounding its history. And yet here it is, Gilliam’s triumph — not really an artistic triumph so much as a triumph over all the obstacles and metaphorical floods and giants that kept it frozen in a curse of stasis, like a princess in a fairy tale, for three decades.