Tag Archives: is this a comedy?

Midnight Screening: Robocop

Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know the meaning of the word nuance, and Robocop provides at least the opening arguments for why the world is a better place for it. Brash and brutal in its own quintessentially ’80s way, Robocop also chomps at the bit to lose itself to the royal flush of political satire that stamps out the dark heart of ’80s consumerist ultra-violence and the evils of capitalism with gusto and flair. Under its sleek, brawny hood lies a personality-surfeit aimed squarely at other ’80s action films. But the film never lowers itself to the tiredness of irony, instead opting for a sort of loving critique of action cinema that plays with its inadequacies and idiocies by exaggerating them and acknowledging that an anti-action film would be a hypocrisy most foul. When Truffaut claimed that any war film that wanted to hate war was dishonest because a war film innately positioned war as a form of excitement, the same could be said to apply to action cinema. Thus, while Robocop gets entangled in its conglomerate mass of neo-fascism and broad-sword crypto-leftism, it’s always glad to exist, always happy to be a film we’re watching, and never per-se anti-action … even if its political message chastising media violence considered along with the fact of its own hyper-violence may not be the most easily reconcilable tension in the film world.
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Review: The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

sb2-ff-001rv2First aired in 1999, the “SpongeBob” animated television show is defined primarily by an aesthetic of chill, off-the-cuff, non-confrontational madness. It is a show left uncontrolled with its own id in a room, forced to confront its own nonsense and live with it and have the most glorious time of its existence simply being itself. It is a wonderful slice of animation as character definition, radical in subtle ways and existential and playful without ever seeming over-worked or tired. Above all, it never really seems to try. It simply exists in its own state, not so much working to function a certain way as laying itself down and exploring whatever comes out of its mind at that moment. It seems gloriously uncontainable, but never too hungry to lash out or rush around for the sake of energy in every direction it can. It’s a show of quiet confusion, aloof froth, and lazy charm. It is something that does not seem to have been produced or created, but found and observed. It is free of exposition, free of explanation. It is pure, un-worked, and unworkable. It seems effortless. Continue reading

Stocking Stuffers: Blue Ruin and Frank

Blue Ruin

Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Playtime

Edited in April 2016

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Batman (1966)


File created with CoreGraphicsIt’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts. 

It’s been a long way for Batman, and superheroes in general. Over the past fifteen years, comic books have been codified and examined and re-examined until there’s nothing left, but very rarely do they ever bring anything new to the table. This can not be said of the ’60s Batman television show, nor can it be said of the film spun off from it. The show was an absurdist trip through modern society’s fascinations as they had been captured on celluloid and in other well-worn forms of media. Undeniably campy and decked out to the teeth with kitsch, the whole affair worked like a playful rib at the cheerful superficiality of a day and age where the world was changing around its inhabitants so fast they couldn’t even comprehend it in terms of reality. It was on a dangerous path to surrealism, and Batman, like a less vicious Bunuel, was there to catch it with its pants down.
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Film Favorites: Love and Death

Love and Death sees Allen at a crossroads between his earlier slapstick farces and the soon-to-be whimsical, wistful flights of fancy that would mark his later, more “mature” productions, to use the conventional schematization. Faced with the choice of doubling down on the past or moving forward, he defiantly, quizzically rides two horses with inconstant passion and takes both directions to his heart’s content. For if Love and Death is a relentlessly immature, pointedly foolish construction, it is also perhaps more fun than any director has ever had knocking “maturity” down to size, playing with a burgeoning reputation as a “serious” filmmaker even before such a stature was set in stone. Love and Death saw Allen tired of mocking space opera and the state of the world. He decided to look to the only other place he knew, the past, his personal canon, and take a pitchfork to everything he loved: Tolstoy, Bergman, and everything that took Tolstoy a few inches forward over a hundred years so it could flower into Bergman. Not that Tolstoy and Bergman have anything to do with each other, but in Allen’s mind they can if he wants them to.
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Film Favorites: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Update 2018: Strangelove’s mockery of masculinist egotism is as acerbic as ever, somehow emblazoned rather than tempered by the sheer mundaneness of the film, its depiction of Cold War crisis not as ideological quagmire but banal kerfuffle between functionaries. The bomb dick is a supremely brutal image, as mischievous as it is evocative of the tensions and aporias in mid-century Cold War culture and the increasing totalitarianism of capitalist and communist ideologies alike. Totally cuts through the crisis-logic of world ideologies by exposing how quotidian the construction of apocalypse really is.

Original Review:

It is the eternal misfortune of the critic, or any person really, to look back upon their years of film viewing and come to the realization that they’ve changed. Critics merely have more tangible evidence to this case. It is especially unfortunate when one’s preferences change to the point where the funny bone is not on the laundry list of necessary boxes to check upon viewing a film. I kid, for we aren’t all heartless bastards or anything, but sometimes it can seem that way. This is why I try, sometimes against my better judgment, to keep things generally light around these parts of the internet. It is why I try to set my sights on something a little … more genial than my normal repertoire of parables of human decay that come in only two forms: grim and actively soul-destroying.

I don’t laugh a lot in movies, plain and simple. But, there’s a joyous flip-side as well! Each time I do cackle at a moving image, the moment is all the more prescient and grin-inducing for its rarity. And, since it is the Holiday season and all, I felt it time for a slight gift to myself, the gift of laughter. I’ve already reviewed a couple of my all-time favorite rib ticklers, such as Duck Soup and This is Spinal Tap. They are part of the precious few, and the following two films keep their company well. Fitting the spirit of the films, I’ll also keep things fast and loose, and try to keep the reviews from imploding on itself for getting too long in the tooth. Perhaps a few more will come as December comes to a close, if of course I maintain the Holiday cheer. But no promises.

Dr. Strangelove

Amusingly, I’ve already failed to keep my promise of promoting “genial” films, and it’s only choice #1. When I’m sick I always make a trip to the doctor, but you wouldn’t know this particular surgeon to bring joy from the bone-dry tone and swirling sense of nihilist dread seeping through the frames and suffocating everything that walks within. For Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) doesn’t have a genial bone in its body. It’s a vicious, angry little nasty-minded bit of coal for your Christmas morning. Were you expecting anything else from the English language’s bleakest director, Stanley Kubrick? If he knew the meaning of the word “playful’, it was only in the context of attaching puppet strings to human flesh and moving them around like the devil’s playthings. They were his toys, and Dr. Strangelove is him on his Christmas morning with a smirk a mile wide.

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Genre Riff New Wave Episode III, The Return of the Storybook: The Princess Bride

By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
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Genre Riff New Wave Round 2: Evil Dead II

Sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off most readily, you know? A few non-actors. A cabin Woods. Two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might. A story that can be summed up as “those non-actors in that cabin face off against those two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might and have their asses handed to them”. Thus is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, such a simple and elegant horror film it doesn’t need to explicate a damn thing. There’s a book. It unlocks some demons. And it’s in a cabin. Why does the book do this, and what are its limits? Who cares. All that matters is that it is the most direct and unworried clothesline upon which Sam Raimi can absolutely tear not one but two genres a new one, and tear down the whole idea of genre as a construct in doing so.

It isn’t really saying much, considering its competition and the positively dreary state of American film during that particular decade, but Evil Dead II might be the battiest, most zestily-directed American film of its decade. Now I recognize this as hyperbole, but Raimi invites hyperbole, and the film earns it. Goodness gracious, the camerawork alone does whirlwinds around anything else being released around the same time, damn near earning the title all its own. Raimi’s whiplash maelstrom never knew a finer shelter than comedy-horror, and it never did the genre prouder than here. The things this camera does need to be experienced, so I’ll refrain from discussing specifics. Let’s just say the man chooses the most inventive position possible for almost every shot and pinwheels his tormented meat-bag humans around his camera like Damian with his first rodent, and he partakes in the mischief every chance he gets. The camera lurches about from space to space, doing almost literally everything it possibly can to simultaneously involve us in the action and elevate us above the action, separating off Raimi’s characters for mockery.
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