Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

The Big Short

January 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

A Very Murray Christmas

December 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

What About Bob?

November 29, 2015

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Almost 25 years later, What About Bob? stirs up debate in some quarters: Who is the villain of the movie? Is it Bob Wiley (Bill Murray), a bottomlessly needy and boundary-disregarding phobic? Or is it Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), an arrogant psychoanalyst, publicity hound, and author of a bestselling pop-psych book? From where I sit, they’re both pretty awful, and they make a natural match. Bob is palmed off onto Leo by another shrink, and even when Leo goes on vacation with his family, Bob shows up at the door of their lakeside summer house. Bob gloms onto Leo as his only road out of fear. Leo just wants to be left in peace.

And so begins a classic battle of wills based on how each man relates to the world. Introduced to Leo’s somewhat intimidated family, Bob almost immediately drops most of his neuroses and snuggles into their good graces, befriending Leo’s son (Charlie Korsmo) — unfortunately named Sigmund — in particular. Leo’s wife (Julie Hagerty) and daughter (Kathryn Erbe) likewise love Bob, while Leo fumes in solitary fury. All Leo wants is to be able to prepare for his upcoming interview with Good Morning America; he obsesses about it so much that fans of the film could get a decent drinking game going by slamming a shot every time someone says Good Morning America.

Bob represents a true challenge to a boastful man who prides himself on helping people. For a while, the movie plays like Frasier Meets the Devil, with Murray as the nightmare patient whose depredations nobody but Leo can perceive. But Leo has his own demons, and Bob functions as brute therapy for Leo (and gentler, fun therapy for his family). What About Bob? isn’t perfect; its script is a bit sloppy at times, or perhaps interfered-with at the studio level. For instance, it sends Leo around the bend that Bob seems to have ingratiated himself with Leo’s sister, a character we’ve only seen in a photo before; we are asked to take Leo’s closeness to his sister on faith, but we don’t feel it or see it, which relieves the plot’s final twist of some of its intended sting. And the director, Frank Oz, enjoys his actors but treats them like Muppets, and doesn’t much care about anything else in front of the camera: there’s an exterior shot with a thunderstorm that’s so blatantly faked by a rain machine it’s a little embarrassing.

Still, this is essentially a two-man comedy riff, of the sort we see less and less at the movies, and as much as I love Bill Murray and admired the skittish technique of his performance, it was Richard Dreyfuss — grinning viciously and ironically becoming the Wile E. Coyote that Bob seems at first to be named after — who got more laughs out of me. Partly it’s the fun of seeing a stuffed shirt spattered with mud and finally becoming homicidally insane, but partly it’s the palpable glee Dreyfuss takes in his middle-period second career as a cartoonish farceur. By both men’s accounts, there was no love lost between Murray and Dreyfuss on the set, and this sharpens Leo’s rage, gives it roots in something real.

This is not to ignore Murray, whose Bob begins as exasperating but develops into something more complicated and mysterious, and perhaps darker. Does Bob only wedge himself into Leo’s family as a way to punish Leo for rejecting him? How much of what Bob says or does is well-meant as opposed to passive-aggressive and only incidentally therapeutic? Murray kind of keeps it ambiguous, at least as much as a mainstream comedy (with yet another terrible generic-comedy music score by Miles Goodman) will allow, while Dreyfuss certainly plays it as though he considered Leo the hero. It could very well be that the Dude’s words to Walter in The Big Lebowski apply equally to Leo: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.” Leo thinks Bob is a monster and a pain and potentially dangerous, and maybe he’s not wrong, but…

Quick Change

November 21, 2015

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Quick Change finds Bill Murray paddling into the uncharted waters of sincerity. To be fair, Murray had dipped his toe in earlier, at the end of Scrooged and in some parts of Ghostbusters II, and of course in his early dramatic attempt that was greeted with bafflement, The Razor’s Edge. But in Quick Change Murray gives a fresh performance, one that dials down the jaded snark while still cashing laughs. He plays Grimm, a New York city planner turned bank robber. Grimm is sick of the city and wants to get out, taking as much of its money with him as possible. Here, Murray doesn’t seem as though he’s critiquing the movie from its margins. Grimm cares about his goals, cares about getting the hell out of Dodge.

The movie, adapted by Howard Franklin from a Jay Conley novel, and co-directed by Franklin and Murray, begins as a farcical take on Dog Day Afternoon and eventually rolls into a variation on After Hours or The Warriors. After the bank robbery — which attracts the expected volume of police and media buzz — Grimm and his accomplices Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) fumble around the city, trying to get to JFK Airport. But New York throws all its snarls and roadblocks and crazies in their path; Grimm wants to escape the city, but it doesn’t seem to want to let him go. New York becomes a major character the way it did in the aforementioned three films.

Grimm and Phyllis aren’t just partners in crime; they’re lovers, and Phyllis spends much of the movie figuring out how to tell Grimm she’s going to have his baby. The sadness in Geena Davis’ eyes when Grimm says he feels “complete” — and presumably not welcoming a child — is one of her great moments as an actress, and it colors everything else she does in the role. Likewise, the eager, somewhat doltish Loomis has been friends with Grimm since grade school, but somehow fears his anger, specifically being hit by him. These two have a strange, complex emotional bond to Grimm that might have been unthinkable in an earlier Bill Murray comedy.

Quick Change is smarter, even more literate, than it needs to be — I remember back in 1990 being surprised that the movie’s commercials included a joke about Thor Heyerdahl (maybe part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit). It’s full of great New York faces and personalities: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Victor Argo, Kurtwood Smith, Philip Bosco, as well as comedians old (Bob Elliott) and then-young (Phil Hartman). There isn’t much filmmaking excitement in it; the two rookie directors (Murray has never directed again) essentially just point a camera at funny people, which turns out to be just enough. There’s enough breathing room in its anecdotal structure for absurdist throwaways like the jousters on bicycles, whom our protagonists — and seemingly the movie itself — pause to watch in wonderment. About the only true aesthetic bummer is Randy Edelman’s cheesy score, interchangeable with that of a dozen generic ’80s comedies.

At the movie’s genially chaotic center is a funnyman (he literally starts off as a clown) who seems to yearn for something different. Groundhog Day was only three years away, and that mystical repetition trip sealed the deal: Bill Murray still wanted to make people laugh, but no longer at the expense of squares, of people who dared to care. In an interview with Roger Ebert promoting the film, Murray said that people were calling the movie “gentle,” which didn’t sit well with him because he considered it “weird and funny,” which it is, but it is also gentle. It’s gentle not only because it has no violence but because almost nobody in it is held up for ridicule; even the chief of police (Jason Robards, and I can’t get over how he went from running around looking robust in this film to being a wheezing husk in Magnolia in just nine years) is allowed to be smart and funny. The two exceptions are a mobster who goes out of his way to be mean to an airport clerk, and a yuppie who insists on being the first hostage to be let free. Grimm uses each man’s aggression against him; it’s comedy aikido.

Twice Upon a Time

November 8, 2015

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Something was in the air in the late ’70s — a small, weird, but welcome animation renaissance that popped up in the void left by Disney in their dreary pre-Mermaid days. Ralph Bakshi hadn’t yet packed it in, Don Bluth was getting started, and not-for-kids toons like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule were actually financed and put in theaters. Of course, given the lead time of cel animation back then, most of these didn’t hit theaters until the early ’80s, coinciding with a rise in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of these experiments found little box-office traction but gathered cults that persist even now.

The cultiest of them all might well be 1983’s Twice Upon a Time, bankrolled by none other than Lucasfilm. It was released in a grand total of one theater, then banished to HBO for a handful of showings, which is how most of its fans caught it. Due to a foofarah over which version was being shown — there were two, one seasoned with lots of PG profanity, one largely clean — the film has been unavailable for decades. The cleaner version was the preferred version of its co-director, John Korty, but viewers erroneously considered the more profane version the “uncut, uncensored” one and thus the more attractive one. Now, finally, Warner Archives has made available a burn-on-demand DVD containing both versions.

What the new viewer (as well as the longtime fan who has never seen it in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio) will get here is a visually sumptuous experience tied to a fairly simple story given convolutions by Korty, his co-director Charles Swenson, and cowriters Suella Kennedy and Bill Couterie. In the black-and-white land of Din (Earth) live the Rushers (us), who receive sweet dreams from Greensleeves and the Figmen of Imagination. Not-so-sweet dreams arrive courtesy of the nefarious Synonamess Botch, who kidnaps Greensleeves and seeks to entrap us Rushers in waking nightmares forever. Our heroes are Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and Mumford the mime, who must keep Botch from procuring the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which … well, you see what I mean about convolutions.

You could very well just let Twice Upon a Time babble and rave in front of you (most of the dialogue was improvised) and care nothing about its plot, because every frame looks as though it were engineered by the Figmen of Imagination. The animation style, which for all I know was limited to this one film, was called “Lumage,” in which plastic cut-out figures were filmed atop a light table, resulting in a lively and unique world of subtle hues. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s madcap creations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the trippy, quippy wooziness of Yellow Submarine; but its sarcastic, visually fecund spirit is all its own. Animation fans, and admirers of pure cinema in general, owe it to themselves to see this at least once.

I watched Korty’s preferred version, which still packs a couple of PG-rated swears (so neither version is altogether school-viewing-safe). The movie is essentially a comedy, satirizing such tropes as the Fairy Godmother (who here wants to be called FGM) and the superhero (goofed on via a Viking-helmeted idiot called Rod Rescueman) and paying homage to its executive patron when a television-headed creature named Ibor plays footage of Darth Vader and Indiana Jones on its face. The biggest name in the voice cast is the late Lorenzo Music, who voiced Garfield for years and does Ralph’s voice in the same jaded deadpan. But as I say, you could almost turn the sound off (a good way to avoid the lame, much-derided songs on the soundtrack) and still groove on the colors and the weirdness and the dreams and nightmares and the killer Scotch tape dispensers and so on.

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 fiercely 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

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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.


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