Tag Archives: comedy

316 – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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A new day, a new entry in the MCU, and on this occasion we’re introduced to an entirely new set of characters and mythos: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fills us in on the history of a young Chinese-American man and his dad’s magical jewellery. Like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it’s a film whose connection to the wider MCU is light, establishing characters, a setting, and story elements that are certain to tie in to subsequent films, but free of the obligation to prioritise them at the expense of itself. And like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, that freedom works in its favour – it’s of a piece, interesting, pretty, and entertaining.

We discuss the film’s setting in a Chinese-American immigrant context, comparing it in particular to The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians: all three films dramatise the cultural differences between the new and old country, and the ways in which the younger generation might face challenges in visiting or returning to their ancestral home. Indeed, Awkwafina appears in all three films, and, even in supporting roles, expresses this subject all by herself. We also think about the MCU’s use of the film to address its own past, a character from Iron Man 3 returning: Shang-Chi not only rejects the way the earlier film totally reconfigured him from the comics, but also addresses the Orientalism with which he has historically been associated.

And there’s more besides – Tony Leung’s beautiful, evocative performance of a character that nonetheless doesn’t quite work; the quality of the action, much of it a cut above what we typically expect from Marvel; and that classic Disney trick – if in doubt, animate a cute animal. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a promising start to the MCU’s next phase, and we look forward to finding out how its world will integrate down the line, but it’s worth seeing on its own terms.

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

314 – Free Guy

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Ryan Reynolds’ schtick, so irritating for so long, is winning us back, and Free Guy is built around his entire star persona, the self-effacing originality of which José remarks upon. Reynolds plays Guy, a videogame non-player character – an extra, essentially, following a programmed routine within a virtual world – with a lightness and sweetness that defines the tone of the entire film.

We discuss what the film represents about videogame culture and what it discards, the desire for romance that drives the story, what Mike questions about its ending, and more. Free Guy is a charming and entertaining action comedy, whether you know games or not.

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

312 – Shiva Baby

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A chamber piece that asks what happens when your life of carefully constructed lies is exposed, Shiva Baby is a smart, tense comedy set in that most aggravating of situations: the funeral, in which you’re forced to be judged by lots of people you want to avoid but aren’t allowed to kick up a stink. We discuss debut writer-director Emma Seligman’s handling of the story’s shifts in tone, in particular how she intensely ekes out tension; the light in which it depicts its women, who bookend scenes with sarcastic off-screen barbs and gossip; and the main character’s relationship to technology, and how her use of it to seek power is a double-edged sword.

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

305 – Black Widow

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Marvel’s triumphant return to our cinemas is… a film that fills in a plot hole nobody cared about for a character who not only should have had a standalone film long before now but who has since been killed off. To say that Black Widow feels like a kick in the teeth is an understatement, but still, the MCU is back with us and we see what it has to offer.

And what it presents us with is something much more earthbound than the spacefaring antics in which Marvel has increasingly indulged: a good old-fashioned Russian spy story, and a family reunion of sorts, Natasha Romanoff driven to reconnect with the other undercover Russian agents who formed her surrogate family as a child. We ask whether the theme of family is done justice here, especially the father’s part in its expression. And, among others, we ask questions of the action filmmaking, the lack of humour in heroes, Romanoff’s conceptualisation, how the women are filmed, and whether it’s necessary to eschew edginess in order to pursue a progressive politics.

Black Widow is a film we enjoyed, though on reflection, picking out the reasons why is harder than picking at its flaws – but it certainly hasn’t dampened our willingness to continue following Marvel’s movies.

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

304 – French Exit

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An offbeat, gentle, surreal, intriguing and slightly camp comic drama, French Exit is a pleasant surprise for us both. Michelle Pfeiffer’s widowed heiress, reduced to selling her late husband’s property, takes what’s left of her life – her cat, adult son, and attitude – to an apartment in Paris, where she resolves to spend her remaining money before ending her life. Sounds hilarious.

And indeed it is, its director, Azazel Jabocs, demonstrating a mastery of tone. We discuss what makes the film work, its visual design, its relationship with and attitude towards money, how that campness José perceives is kept subdued, and more. French Exit isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it is a good one, and a charming way to spend a couple of hours.

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

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.