Posts Tagged ‘Comedy



Andrew and I recently watched Tampopo, a much beloved film directed by Jûzô Itami starring his wife and frequent collaborator Nobuko Miyamoto as Tampopo herself. It was originally released in 1985, but it is currently streaming through the Criterion Collection alongside a whole retrospective of other Itami films that I’m excited to watch too. I’ve really loved this movie for many years, although it had been a long time since I’d watched it and Andrew hadn’t seen it before, so it was nice to be able to re-discover this multi-course meal of a comedic film.

The movie is almost an essay collection meditating on the centrality of food in our lives, filled with brief, little vignettes interspersed like little amuse bouches in between bites of the main dish of the central plot. There are flashes that reminded me of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel, Tardi’s Mon Uncle series, In the Realm of the Senses, Rocky, the Magnificent Seven, and Gekiga-style manga in the way it dices together humor, eroticism, and pathos into a delicious, fluffy omurice combo.

The central plot revolves in particular around a hapless chef trying to master the difficult art of the perfect bowl of ramen that happy diners will drain to the last soulful drop of broth. Luckily she has a dream team of ramen aficionados like a very straight version of Queer Eye for the Chef Lady, who come together to help her make over her culinary skills, her restaurant, and even her chef outfits. The result is a delightful journey that I can’t help but feel helped to inspire a whole legion of Japanese culinary-themed manga, shows, and films such as the Drops of God, Oishinbo, Giant Spider and Me, Samurai Gourmet, and Midnight Diner, just to name a few of my favorites. Itami really deftly balances the serious technical ability and passion that the characters pour into ramen against a lovely sense of the absurd that keeps the whole endeavor feeling like a real hero’s journey for the title character.

If you’re looking for a movie that will leave you in a good (though possibly also very hungry) mood, I highly recommend bellying up to the Tampopo ramen bar.


Four Oddballs


Modesty Blaise

There are two of these. The more recent one is actually a pretty decent movie (and definitely worth a look as an honestly feminist spy movie where the action hero draws her power from the connections she’s made, not violent isolation) but the original one is candy colored and BALLS CRAZY. About equal parts Danger: Diabolik and Our Man Flint, it’s inexplicable, campy and fun as heck.



A black comedy (or comedic horror movie) about cannibals and the Wendigo, written and directed by and starring vegetarians, so there are a lot of queasy shots of meat both animal and human. Featuring Guy Pierce, the guy from the Full Monty and Jeffery Jones (of Howard the Duck fame!). Look for the chase sequence set to the banjo music from Raising Arizona.


The Revenger’s Tragedy

You just never know with Alex Cox. His influences are all over the map, and sometimes he’s just damn unwatchable. (The dreary, muddy Borges adaption Death and the Compass?) But other times he’s sublimely inartistic—Repo Man, sure, or the even awesomer Repo Chick—or here, where he somehow found funding for an original language version of a Jacobean revenge play set in the grim post apocalyptic world of 2012 Liverpool starring The Doctor and The Master (Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi, if you’re a philistine). Oh, and Eddie Izzard is in it as one of the less flamboyant characters, so there you go. Hard to follow in a noisy environment, but then the dialogue is kind of secondary, anyway. Everybody wants everybody else dead, and there’s some incest too, just because.



I don’t even know about this one. Sort of like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, and sort of like Teeth, and sort of like neither. Lila, a fundamentalist pre-teen girl leaves her creepy pedo foster parent (a really broad caricature of an evangelical preacher) and goes in search of her missing father, a violent 20s style gangster. She runs into zombies, slimy bus drivers and an old witch before falling in with Lemora, who might be her mother, or another witch, or herself as a sexually mature woman. Weird, culty, doing that feminist reworking of fairy tales as a sexual coming of age story thing. Especially great for a scene where Lemora pursues Lila as her clitoris embodied as a burning torch.


A Fantastic Fear of Everything


I’m reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Clover, a seminal (in every sense of the word) analysis of the genre published in the early 90s that looks at the way gender and fear of gender plays out in the horror movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s great, and manages (so far, anyway), the delicate task of acknowledging both the obvious subtext playing out in the movies AND the explicit text that is often disregarded or explained away as merely a thin cover for the subtext. She talks about, for example, the way slasher movies use the female Last Girl to stand in for an adolescent male audience but also how that decision to make the protagonist female is meaningful on a literal level. She also talks about medieval notions of slippery gender, which is catnip to me.

Anyway. Last night we watched A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a 2012 flick starring Simon Pegg, and it’s an interesting parallel to what Clover discusses. The second chapter of MW&C talks about possession movies, and how they are generically split into two parts: the female possessed who is narratively underdeveloped and the male in crisis who is forced to confront his own deficient or overdeveloped masculinity due to the possession. Clover says that the female possession, which is usually manifested as a hysterical femininity or a cross-gender machoness, is necessary to allow the man to embrace behaviors that would otherwise be coded as feminine — she is thrust beyond the pale to open the space up for him, emotionally speaking. Typically, in her analysis, the man starts the film off as emotionally closed, and it is the job of the horror to force him open — sometimes cathartically (as in Witchboard), and sometimes destructively (as in The Exorcist).

A Fantastic Fear of Everything, though, collapses the two into one character, Jack, played by Simon Pegg, who starts the movie off in the normally feminine space of the possessed (in this case by a crippling paranoia and agoraphobia triggered by an overdose of Victorian murder research) and as the emotionally shuttered man in crisis: Jack was a successful children’s author, but he resents that part of his career, which he blames for ruining his marriage, and wants to write a more properly masculine series of television shows about Victorian bloodshed called Decades of Death.


Jack and Sangeet

The movie plays with his gender throughout: he spends the first major section of the movie in a short robe that reads like a dress from a distance, his hair long and ragged, twitching and shrieking at every little noise. The image at the top is a good example — his knees are even kept decorously together, as a proper lady should keep them! At the end of the movie, after having been harrowed first by a series of domestic catastrophes, then by a traumatic visit to a laundromat, then finally by an actual serial killer with abandonment issues similar to his own, he resolves the major conflicts plaguing him, recognizes how traumatized he was by the loss of his mother, and embraces the unmasculine role of children’s author. At this point his voice deepens, his hair is cropped short, and he is rewarded with a relationship with the attractive women he was kidnapped with; he has relinquished his toxic obsession with masculinity and shed his destructive femininity. His psychiatrist friend, in a bit of metacommentary, congratulates him on how his latest book synthesizes Freudian and Jungian themes in one hedgehog. Despite his newfound gender identity, he is still threatened by relapse, though — his literary agent introduces him to a creepy, ambiguously queer American who is interested in producing Decades of Death (he chides Jack for missing an earlier meeting with him, calling him a “naughty boy,” and claws at the air suggestively), and Jack is washed with the old paranoia, nearly fainting, until his new girlfriend rescues him, both from the literal faint AND from the subtextual gender panic. Jack promises the American to “think about it” and runs away into the credit sequence with her, masculinity redeemed.



The General


Just a quickie review today. I saw The General yesterday and it is, of course, fantastic. It’s kind of amazing to watch Buster Keaton act, since he actually has a really dour, long face, huge, soulful eyes, and he naturally wears a rather serious expression. Check him out in this close-up for example:


He looks more like a poet than a virtuosic, daredevil comedian. But when I really think about it,  I guess this deadpan is actually part of what makes him funny. The true magic of The General comes from the way Buster Keaton floats through the obstacles around him half-unaware, half-blase. Just like his other famed contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, the real dynamite quality of his performance is how effortless he makes pretty unbelievable stunts look. His odd, sullen face sets this off all the more. The other thing I like about The General is how it is a perfect marriage between action and comedy and, as I’d already mentioned in an earlier review, these genres come together all too rarely these days. This one is definitely worth checking out. Particularly, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with an amazing silent movie house with a real working organ like I used to.


500 Days of Summer


So, I wanted to review a more mainstream movie for the blog finally, so I went and saw 500 Days of Summer this weekend. A couple of the reviews I read on Metacritic made some sweeping claims about this movie being the Annie Hall of the younger generation and I will say such claims are wildly exaggerated, or at least I would hope that they are. There is a very similar tone and narrative structure in this movie to that in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few years ago, with much of the movie being flashes forward and backwards in time with some stylistic, music video-esque touches here and there. I’m not sure if this was an intentional knock-off or what, but I have to say Michel Gondry is better at playing with the visuals, Charlie Kaufman wrote a much more interesting, meaningful script, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet imbued their characters with a lot more humanity.

With that said, I think the script is probably the biggest culprit here. Zooey Deschanel was doing her quirky charming thing full force and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did such a fabulous job in Brick and The Lookout recently, I feel like he probably did what he could with the material. Many critics have been talking about how Deschanel’s character, Summer, is too much of a blank slate, but I would say both characters are underdeveloped. Due to the clever/gimmicky structuring of the narrative, I think it was an extra challenge to make the characters feel like real people and to make the interaction between the characters feel real. We don’t see a lot of personality flaws in either character and we see a lot of cutesy dates (including a weird scene almost entirely built around a product-placement that made me pretty queasy), but very few awkward moments or arguments so that you don’t really understand the sour side of the relationship. Without a fully developed negative side to the relationship, it feels like a shallow, glossy magazine version of romance and unfairly suckers the audience in a contrived way.

Additionally, SPOILER ALERT, the movie could have at least had a more realistic, powerful ending if they had left it at the scene where the movie begins, but instead they add this cheesy, ridiculous ending on that feels like a total cop-out for whatever emotional truth it was trying to dredge up. In Eternal Sunshine, you really understand both sides of the characters and their relationship with each other. You see the attraction, but also the boredom and annoyance, which are the familiar accoutrements of most long-term romantic relationships. The ending is full of pathos because you understand that the main characters can’t escape either the attraction or the inevitable discontent that develops between them and you feel the full poignancy of the can’t live with them or without them nature of love. By comparison, 500 Days of Summer doesn’t hold much water.

What really bothers me about 500 Days of Summer though has more to do with a certain type of quirky, indie-lite female character which seems to be coming up more and more in the mainstream movie business these days who is sometimes charming and sometimes cloying. She seems to be a recurring phenomena, arguably starting with Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn and morphing into the kind of character Winona Ryder used to play all the time, that Natalie Portman played in Garden State, Ellen Page played in Juno, and that Zooey Deschanel now plays all the time. I have mixed feelings about this recurring character, who on the one hand avoids the sex-bomb airhead female stereotype which so dominates the movie business and who can often be funnier and more intelligent than the traditional female lead.

I think the big difference between the versions I like and the ones I don’t is who is doing the writing. Namely, I think when there is a woman writing these characters, they often hold up a lot better than when men are writing them. For example, I think Juno was good, because for once you could see how the quirky, pluckiness was actually just the surface of a three-dimensional, though very young woman and not her whole personality. For another, she wasn’t just some fantasy girl of endless charm, she was sarcastic, self-deprecating, and whip-smart. I felt the same way about another movie, which fits the quirky label, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly which has a black humor and sensitivity that adds up to a brilliant screenplay and a fantastic protagonist. Interestingly, the Winona Ryder characters that I liked so much when I was younger from Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids, and Reality Bites were also all written by women.

In contrast, Zooey Deschanel’s characters are often written by men and are so fucking sunny and one-dimensional it kind of makes you want to murder somebody. And Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, written by leading man Zach Braff, has to be one of my least favorite female characters of all time. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in some upcoming quirky movies whose trailers were of course shown before the screening of 500 Days of Summer that I went to, Paper Heart and Whip It.


After Hours

After Hours

Martin Scorsese ended up directing After Hours when his first attempt to film The Last Temptation of Christ totally imploded and the future of his career was uncertain. Tim Burton had signed on to do the project earlier on, but bowed out when he learned Scorsese wanted it, which is almost a shame when you think about what his take on this dark, frenetic material might have been. It is a nice little movie as is though, which involves a long series of nightmarish twists and turns over the course of one endless night in New York City.  Admittedly, there are a few slow patches and it is very much a minor work from a major director, but it’s interesting to see a different kind of movie from Scorsese. What surprised me most while I was watching it though was how much it reminded me of Jim Jarmusch (particularly Night on Earth) who I wouldn’t have connected to Scorsese before. This movie has the same spontaneity, the multiple cameo performances, the sense of place, and even the particular brand of black humor that have become Jarmusch hallmarks. It would be interesting to know if the movie influenced him at all since it came out a little before he truly got started.


Burn After Reading

The fairly recent Cohen brothers’ movie, Burn After Reading is quite a strange one. Characters are introduced at a rapid-fire pace, each managing to be hilariously quirky without seeming quite real. John Malkovich plays an extremely irritable ex-CIA employee who quits in a huff after being moved to a less important department. Tilda Swenson plays his coldly deceptive wife, who is engaged in an affair with George Clooney, another CIA employee who is about equally obsessed with jogging and sex. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play two workers at a fitness club who stumble upon a CD full of what appears to be classified government “shit.” If these descriptions of the characters seem to you more like humorous sketches than people, you might just be a redneck. Or you might just be right. They are characters in the most basic sense of the word, possessing certain characteristics and quirks, but no real depth or history. It’s not really possible to empathize with a single one. This is tolerable partly because it seems intentional, and partly because the actors playing these characters do such an entertaining job. The movie itself is sort of like the Big Lebowski in its meandering plotline, one so unpredictable that it makes little sense to say that it has “twists.” The difference is that this film picks up where “No Country for Old Men” left off in its unadorned and often unexpected displays of graphic violence that seem to be the Coen Brothers’ calling card. The stark violence doesn’t really add to the comedy of the film, but it manages not to take away from it either. It’s kind of just there. Ultimately the problem lies not with the comedy or the violence, but the shallowness of the story these elements are used to express. Burn After Reading doesn’t have the joyous, dreamlike quality of The Big Lebowski nor the excruciating suspense of No Country for Old Men. In fact, without a central engrossing character or message, Burn After Reading doesn’t seem like a movie so much as a writing exercise that accidentally made it to the screen.

All this makes the film seem bad, but it wasn’t really bad at all, just disappointing. At the end of the movie, the director of the CIA advises the assistant who has been reporting all the crazy goings-on to just “try and forget all this ever happened.” This advice is clearly meant for the audience as well, to assure them that the directors knew this film was utterly mediocre and it’s ok to forget it. As much as I appreciate the gesture, I’d appreciate it more if they’d said that to themselves earlier, and burnt after writing.



The Ten

Last weekend, I finally rented the movie, The Ten,  by David Wain who also brought us Wet Hot American SummerStella Shorts, and the 90’s era obscure, but brilliant sketch comedy TV show, The State, which I was introduced to by our own Gleicherd. In college, Gleicherd and our friends used to watch and quote from old episodes of The State all the time. The best thing about the sense of humor of The State is their willingness to take absurdity to the extreme, until it borders on the surreal and purgatory-esque. The best sketches in The Ten, which is built around 10 skits that are loosely based on each of the ten commandments,  go off the same principles of humor that made The State a great show and there is definitely some funny stuff in the movie. Admittedly, it does not really capture the pure lovable goofiness that makes Wet Hot American Summer amazing and it is probably more on the level of a mediocre episode of The State, without nearly enough Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter and way too much Jessica Alba. With that said, since you still can’t get episodes of The State on DVD, The Ten is probably worth watching instead.

–Vicky Vengeance