Tag Archives: comedy

303 – The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

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The sequel to one of the first films we discussed on Eavesdropping at the Movies, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard reunites Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman, Ryan Reynolds’ bodyguard, and Salma Hayek’s hitman’s wife – whose role is significantly expanded from the first film’s bit part. The vaguely sketched plot – Antonio Banderas wants to blow up Europe or something, and that’s enough detail – is the wire hanger upon which jokes and comic character interplay are draped, but, crucially, is the comedy successful?

Whether it is or isn’t, and what we read into the audience response, is up for discussion, as is the deployment of the stars’ personas and cinematic histories, what renders Ryan Reynolds’ schtick endearing here where it’s normally irritating, and whether the film’s sexual dimension is overly vulgar or too one-sided.

José has seen The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard twice now, and is no less in thrall to Hayek’s aggressive, wild performance the second time, loudly and enthusiastically responding to it. Mike is much less impressed with the film, but does admit to warming up to it in the second half, after a particularly mad joke that we won’t spoil here (but do in the podcast). If there are more Hitman’s Bodyguard films to come, hopefully with increasingly deliberately clunky titles, we’re up for them.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

294 – The Two Popes

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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce star as the previous and current Popes respectively, in The Two Popes, an imagined biopic that uses their personas and public profiles as jumping off points to explore a range of ideas. We discuss the success with which the film has been adapted from the original stage play, but the lack of visual artistry it nonetheless exhibits; the ways in which it uses – and ignores – the characters’ histories and mistakes; the sincerity that underpins the entire film; and the rather cheap and simple, if entertaining, use of football to convey Pope Francis as a man of the people. Although we find all sorts of areas to pick at, The Two Popes is easy to recommend – witty, charming, brilliantly performed by Hopkins and Pryce, and keen to explore meaningful ideas with seriousness and solemnity, when the moment calls for it. Worth a look.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

276 – The Birdcage

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Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.

The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.

There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

272 – Cool Hand Luke

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A key film in Paul Newman’s career that gave us one of cinema’s most iconic lines, Cool Hand Luke is known to both Mike and José – but previously seen by neither. The reasons that it became a cultural touchstone remain crystal clear, despite it failing, to a significant degree, to grab us as it might. We question the authenticity and purpose of Luke’s rebellion, the depiction of prison life, and the flimsy Christian allegory that tirelessly insists upon itself. The brutality perhaps seems unfairly tame today, an unavoidable consequence of coming to the film more than fifty years late, but its comedy still works beautifully and Newman’s charm has gone nowhere. It’s a fantasy, we conclude, for the privileged – an ultimately mortal fight against The Man, the point of which may very well be its lack of focus and clarity of purpose. Jesus was crucified for our sins; will we be recounting the story of Luke in two thousand years? Only time will tell.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

271 – Soul

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Occupying some similar thematic terrain to Coco, Pixar’s 2017 masterpiece, Soul uses an afterlife-bound journey with a tight deadline to explore what it is that makes us human, in the context of a life devoted to music. When Joe, a music teacher and passionate jazz pianist, dies in a classic open manhole cover accident, his soul, now separated from his body but desperate to live, escapes an A Matter of Life and Death-inspired travelator to Heaven and ends up in the Great Before, a meadow populated with unborn souls preparing for their upcoming lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he is assigned 22, a cynical, sarcastic soul with no desire to live on Earth, and when he tries to return to his body, she accidentally comes with.

As well as to Coco, Mike finds Soul comparable to another of Pixar’s films: Soul handles philosophical concepts the way Inside Out did psychological ones, rendering them visually imaginative and narratively physical. ‘The zone’, where people describe themselves when feeling that transcendent state of flow when an activity consumes them, is in the Great Before a real place that Joe and 22 visit; the unborn souls develop personality traits signified by Boy Scout-style badges. The storytelling is economical and concise, characters’ priorities and attitudes smoothly and legibly changing as their goals and relationships shift. It’s a beautifully told story.

José considers the social and economic setting of Joe’s life, the music he loves and the barber he visits, about whose life he learns – the film humanely understands people and hardship without wallowing in despair, finding space for joy. We wonder how well it will play to kids, thrilled that Pixar refuses to speak down to its audience, if a little unsure about how much will translate to the younger members of its target audience. Predictably, Mike finished the film in tears, despite an ending he found to be overly mechanical and inorganic.

Soul is a beautiful, wonderful film. To José, it’s a masterpiece. To Mike, possibly not, but only because Coco exists. See it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

265 – The Palm Beach Story

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Do English people get Preston Sturges? Is his work all it’s cracked up to be? These questions are on the table as we tackle The Palm Beach Story, a film Mike’s twice been encouraged to see by Canadians, and twice found infuriating and tiresome. José’s a fan, and we discuss the differences in our responses to the film, the pleasures that can be found within it, and how Sturges gives comically sensitive voice to the strong, silent American male, with several helpful interjections from Celia, friend of the podcast and the first Canadian who told Mike he just doesn’t get it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

262 – A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

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You find us in reflective mood, as we reflect upon a reflective Swedish comedy, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Hopping between vignettes, Andersson’s dispassionate camera sits in corners of rooms, its wide angle lens taking in everything on display from wall to wall, as often absurd and sometimes unsettling action slowly unfolds. The final film in Andersson’s “Living” trilogy (2000-2014), it asks, “what are we doing?”; and, as José points out, in one especially disturbing scene, “what have we done?”

José delights in its sense of humour, the film offering deadpan responses to surreal events; while it’s also up Mike’s street, the film’s studied slowness begins to grate on him, and when it loses him after an initial flourish of spontaneous and unpredictable oddness, it fails to win him back. We discuss its origins, its title inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow; its focus on life’s less fortunate, and how we interpret their behaviour; moments of stillness that eschew the opportunity for jokes; and its historical references, to World War II, to the brutality of white, and particularly British, imperial history, and to elements of Swedish history that our primitive knowledge of the country keeps us from properly accessing.

Our instinctive responses disagree, but perhaps mostly because of the difference in how comfortably we matched the film’s mood. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an undeniably well-made, carefully considered and original work of individual expression and curiosity, and one that inspires boundless questions and interpretations of its own.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

258 – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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Fourteen years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen’s first tour of the USA as Borat, his friendly, clueless, and decidedly un-PC Kazakh journalist. Borat gave his unwitting participants, real people who didn’t know that he was a character, space and encouragement to display their bigotry, sexism, racism, and stupidity – now he’s back to do it again, in a world in which bigotry, sexism, racism and stupidity are no longer deemed necessary to hide.

Sexism in particular is this film’s bedrock, the film introducing a daughter, Tutar, who Borat didn’t know about, and when she stows away on her father’s trip, he decides to offer her to Mike Pence as a token of Kazakhstan’s friendship. Women are chattel, and the only objection raised when Borat decides to give the fifteen-year-old Tutar breast implants is that he can’t afford them. Women’s role as playthings for men, and the society that refuses to allow them control over their bodies, shape almost every scene, including a debutante ball, a conversation with a Christian doctor, and of course, THAT scene with Rudy Giuliani.

We also discuss the question of the reality of what we’re seeing and how the film’s camerawork and editing fails to convince us of it, how comedy has changed in the last decade and a half, and how the film unexpectedly gives its unwitting participants the opportunity to be tolerant and welcoming. And we each share memories of our grandmothers.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

257 – Antz

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The second feature-length computer-animated film ever made, after Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story, Antz is an oddball. A public feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, led to Katzenberg founding Dreamworks SKG and subsequently feuding with Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was making the suspiciously similar – and ultimately more successful – A Bug’s Life. Pixar is the historically more successful and well-regarded studio, and the direct comparison between these two films usually sees Antz considered inferior, but Mike’s long been fond of it, and in revisiting it we discuss both how far it shows us animation has come in the last twenty years, and its many qualities, including its rather grown-up tone and references, imaginative and expressive visual design and cinematography, and witty dialogue.

Oh, and we try to work out how children think.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

256 – Playtime

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Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, 1967’s Playtime, is an extraordinarily ambitious work of visual comedy and social satire. Mike’s been keen to see this for fifteen years or more, knowing of its reputation for detailed visual design and the 70mm cinematography that shows it off, waiting for the right moment. José, when Mike suggests we watch it, thinks he’s seen it many years ago, but soon realises he was probably thinking of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati’s rather more charming comedy of fourteen years prior, so it takes him a while to get into Playtime‘s rather more offbeat gear.

And he is ultimately a little cold to the film, though not immune to its appeal and pleasures, while Mike loves it unconditionally. In a somewhat alternate, near-future Paris, the plot, such as it is, follows two characters: Monsieur Hulot, the character Tati played in several films, as he stumbles through a France he finds unfamiliar and devoid of humanity; and Barbara, an American tourist visiting the city. In approximately six fairly distinct vignettes, Tati explores a vision of a consumerist, modern, and alienating Paris, the Eiffel Tower, symbolising the warm, cosy Paris of old, a long way away, merely a distant feature on the horizon or a reflection in a window. It’s an attitude for which José has little sympathy, though Mike suggests that the development of the final scene, a kind of funfair around a traffic jam, can be seen as a synergy of the traditional and modern, and finds it moving.

There’s a huge amount to discuss, including the design and execution of the jokes; the impossible scale of the set, nicknamed ‘Tativille’ and whose astronomical cost would ruin Tati, who was forced to file for bankruptcy; to what other films, if any, it can be compared; the visual design, cinematography, choreography, and colour; the use of nationality, particularly American; and how the film might play differently today compared to upon its initial release – Mike arguing that it may have anticipated changes to the real world that would later materialise, such as the cubicle office, whose familiarity to us diminishes the otherworldliness we might otherwise feel.

Playtime is a significant work of satire and well worth seeing, particularly given its beautiful restoration in 2014. Don’t miss it for fifteen years. Don’t be Mike.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.