Tag Archives: comedy

230 – I vitelloni

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Federico Fellini invites us to hang out with a group of unemployed, lazy twentysomethings in 1953’s I vitelloni, one of his earliest films and an interesting portrait of life in a sleepy Italian town. For José, comparisons to his youth in a sleepy Spanish town abound; Mike finds links to British films that evoke similar feelings. I vitelloni is both culturally specific and universally relatable – every society has some version of the gang one grows up with, and the middle-class youngsters who think they rule the place.

We consider the motif of homosexuality – evoked in different ways by different characters, sometimes explicitly and sometimes only if we want to see it, but present throughout – and the theme of patriarchy, considering particularly the roles of women in the film, be they wives, mothers, or playthings, and ask what their agency is, if any – do they even believe they have any? Life in I vitelloni‘s seaside town is unconducive to personal progress, development, opportunity, and freedom, but where another story would express the frustrations felt by the constricted youth, here they harbour few ambitions.

I vitelloni is evocative and timeless – as coherent and understandable today as it was seventy years ago.

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

228 – To Be or Not to Be

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny lead chaos in 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy set amongst a group of actors turned resistors in occupied Poland. Considered to be in bad taste at the time, it was, to say the least, a bold film to make, one that mocked the very real and active threat of the Nazis to their faces. It’s also endlessly witty and truly hilarious, generous and kind. It’s a treat.

We think about it in comparison to other satire, in particular that of Mel Brooks, who José argues has an aggression and contempt that Lubitsch avoids, while Mike suggests that their work shares an absolute unambiguity as to the targets they set and the messages they convey. But there’s unquestionably a remarkable sensitivity of tone to To Be or Not to Be, as well as an effortlessly executed intelligence in plotting, with the love triangle of the opening leading cleverly, smoothly, and unpredictably, into the unmasking of a Gestapo spy.

José can’t speak highly enough of Lubitsch, above whom there sits nobody in the pantheon of the great filmmakers. And Mike likes him too.

P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Mike begs your forgiveness for incorrectly claiming that Sid Caesar famously played a comedy Nazi on television in the 1950s. He in fact played a German general. A comedy German general.

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

227 – Southland Tales

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A film many have heard of and few have seen, Southland Tales is writer-director Richard Kelly’s infamous difficult second album. Six years after his eventual cult hit Donnie Darko, this sprawling, confusing mess of an end-of-days parable was released to thunderous bafflement and almost no box office. We dive in and find that perhaps all we needed was to give it thirteen years to breathe.

There’s no defending much of the film’s execution. Kelly’s visuals are functional at best, almost never expressive, and rather obvious, there’s an abundance of plot that feels at once over- and under-developed, and there’s no emotional way in to significantly connect with any character. But Southland Tales is chock full of ideas and ambition, and there’s much to respond positively to. José considers how its critique of American culture continues to resonate today; Mike suggests that alongside M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it captures the state of mind of post 9/11, pre-financial crash, perpetually warring, deeply conservative and fearful America. Kelly may show little instinct for visual expression, but his ability to cast well and get the best out of his actors is remarkable, and for José, Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson have never been better. And we consider the use of Revelations in the voiceover, and wonder where Seann William Scott has been for the last ten years.

For a Saturday night in, it’s tough to recommend Southland Tales. As a sizzlingly ambitious attempt to combine just about every worry it was possible to have in mid-2000s America into a grand work of sci-fi satire, it’s fascinating and worth your time. Its reach far exceeds its grasp, but that’s so much more appealing than the other way round.

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

226 – Twentieth Century

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.

Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.

While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.

P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Burt Lancaster never performed a part written by the New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty. He did perform a part written by the British dramatist Terence Rattigan. José apologises profusely.

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

205 – Jojo Rabbit

Its intentions are good, but we have trouble with Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s comedy about a young boy in Nazi Germany, a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth, who discovers a Jewish girl being given safe harbour by his mother. Our reservations stem from the state of the world and culture in which the film has been made, in which fascism is resurgent and increasingly worth taking seriously.

We discuss comedy’s ability to puncture that at which it takes aim, Mike arguing that we like to overstate its power, José lamenting cinema’s unwillingness to take today’s fascist figureheads on directly – by comparison, satirising Hitler and the Nazis is a safe choice. Mike criticises the film’s superficiality, finding that its depiction of the Nazi regime is skin deep, merely built on signifiers with which we’re familiar – there’s no attempt here to explore Jojo’s psychology, or how and why he’s been taught what he has. José argues that the film makes its Nazis too likeable, too goofy; the film wants to offer us a message that people are ultimately good, and in so doing gives its villains the opportunity of redemption, which they tend to take. It’s partially contextualised by the 1944 setting, the dying German war machine making sense of the cynicism in Sam Rockwell’s Nazi officer; setting the film during the Nazi regime’s strongest years would have been more interesting, and braver.

Despite all of this, Jojo Rabbit gets lots of laughs, and Waititi manages the tone well, the film making moves into some unexpectedly dark areas at times. But its successes never distract from the overall ideological problems we feel it has.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

197 – Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

A trip to the Mockingbird Cinema in the Custard Factory yields a massively hyped up and receptive audience of fat white blokes for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Mike is one of them, and he’s never been harder to pick out of a lineup, laughing like a drain at the fan service and antics. José isn’t, and he was already a bit too old for Kevin Smith when he emerged in the 90s, but he has almost as good a time as everyone else there. The film is huge fun and creates a palpable sense of community, filled with friends and family, incorporating in-jokes and characters from throughout Smith’s work – it’s pure comfort food for its fans.

We think about Smith as a figure, his reputation as a writer who can barely direct, and what he takes pride in. And we look over his filmography, José thinking back on what made Chasing Amy radical in its day, and Mike suggesting that with Jersey Girl and Cop Out, Smith’s reputation, and perhaps an external factor or two (remember Bennifer?) played a part in the hostile reception for two films he found perfectly acceptable and even charming.

He’s an interesting figure, Kevin Smith, a director whose cinematic reputation is outshone by his stardom as an individual, something to which his mighty legion of podcasts and Q&As speaks – indeed, Reboot‘s UK screenings come with a bespoke post-credits Q&A, and Smith is accompanying the film around the US and Canada on its roadshow release – but his films have earned and maintained a devoted following for 25 years now, something to which the audience tonight can attest. Wherever Reboot is showing, it’s worth checking out, because with an audience as up for it as ours was, it’s a special event.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

181 – Laurel and Hardy – Twice Two, County Hospital, and Way Out West

The Birmingham chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society shows a few of their films every year at the mac, and this year sees them screen two shorts, Twice Two (1933) and County Hospital (1932), followed by their classic Western feature, Way Out West (1937). We discuss Laurel and Hardy’s style, Mike comparing it favourably to cartoons and less favourably to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and José remarks upon the joys of seeing a full audience of people aged 4 to 90 all laughing at these everlasting films.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

174 – The Farewell

We love Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama The Farewell, about a Chinese family that knows their grandmother, Nai Nai, has cancer, but keeps it a secret from her. Awkwafina brings humour and sensitivity to the American-raised granddaughter who argues that her family is in the wrong, and although the film opens up questions of cultural differences, it’s remarkably even-handed, refusing to judge or criticise any opinion. Zhao Shuzhen, playing Nai Nai, is delightfully warm and snappy, and shares wonderful chemistry with Awkwafina.

The Farewell is a gentle film that tells an engrossing story, and it’s simply a pleasure to be in its world.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

165 – Animals

There’s a remarkable female gaze in Animals, Sophie Hyde’s adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel, and a wonderful sense of insightful observation in the world occupied by and behaviours of the two friends whose stories it tells.

Mike, who’d been anticipating it keenly since seeing the trailer, feels a little shortchanged by the triteness of the larger themes on which the film builds and the relative lack of excitement in comparison to what the trailer conveyed. José shares a little of that feeling but is keen to express his pleasure at seeing a film so confidently and originally expressive of a female perspective, particularly in its sex scenes. And we both adore the stars, Alia Shawkat for her fabulously performative comic theatrics, and especially Holliday Grainger for her extraordinary, sensitive, soulful expression of a girl falling in and out of love and friendship and upset with her own failings.

Animals is a film that explodes with creativity and expressiveness in the details, but whose big picture leaves us wanting.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

163 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.

Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here, instead only wanting to use the Manson family to rag on hippies, is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.

The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.

Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.

You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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