Tag Archives: Comedy

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 361 – The Italian Job (1969)

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The Italian Job is a classic British caper familiar to everyone who’s grown up in the UK, so often has it been shown on telly and so embedded in British culture is the iconography of the red, white and blue Minis, the chase through Turin, only being supposed to blow the bloody doors off, and of course, the cliffhanger. Even those who, like Mike, have never watched it from beginning to end, know and love it as an unimpeachable icon of British cinema.

Which may be curious, considering Mike’s dislike of a UK that has left the EU in a storm of angry little Englanderism and British exceptionalism, as that reliving-the-war, one-in-the-eye-for-the-Europeans attitude can be read throughout The Italian Job – but, José argues, it’s a film that conveys affection for the continent, too, in its globetrotting nature and the beautiful scenery it shows off; and after all, its release came just a few years before the UK joined the EEC, which would later become the EU, in 1973. So it’s not quite that simple.

The Italian Job‘s notion of national identity is also conveyed through class, which is clearly delineated here, particularly through its use of Michael Caine and Noël Coward, who each connote specific strata of the class system. Importantly, this is no tale of class warfare – everyone’s in it together for Queen and country, and the gold heist that everything’s leading towards is explicitly given a national purpose. All that gold isn’t being stolen just for fun: who it’s being stolen from and for are key.

While our heads swirl with all these issues and more – including whether the chase is a good as all that, and the sexism of the comedy delivered by Benny Hill’s character – we have a grand old time at The Electric seeing The Italian Job. It falls short of cinematic greatness, but it’s jolly good fun, and those iconic images and sequences, which might only have existed in your mind’s eye for years since you last chanced upon the film on TV, don’t disappoint when you see them once again.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 357 – Everything Everywhere All at Once

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We’ve seen a lot of the multiverse lately, and Everything Everywhere All at Once brings to it a combination of Gen Z existential angst and mid-life where-did-things-go-wrong woe, in a frantic comic-action-sci-fi wrapper. It’s a lot of things in one, and we discuss as many of them as we can remember, including its campness, puerility, basis in multi-generational immigrant life, film references, endless endings, and much more. It’s full of life and imagination, and despite its unevenness, easy to recommend.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 354 – CODA

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If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is to be believed, CODA, a comedy-drama about the tension caused in a deaf family when the one child who can hear wishes to pursue a career in singing, is the best film of 2021. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not to be believed, and the fact that a straight-to-video Hallmark film can win the most prestigious award in cinema is a damning indictment of film culture today. Still, taken on its own merits, CODA is perfectly likeable and you’ll enjoy spending time in its company. But really. This isn’t good enough.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 349 – The Worst Person in the World

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A Palme d’Or-nominated millennial comic drama from Norway, whose lead, Renate Reinsve, won Best Actress at Cannes last year, The Worst Person in the World explores universal themes of how to find a direction in life, our expectations of our own lives and others’, falling in and out of love, and how to handle the twists that life throws our way. But it speaks to José and Mike differently.

To the older of us, it’s a great film, one that articulates its themes with complexity and develops its characters expressively. To the younger – a millennial, to whom it should speak more directly – it’s a film that’s difficult to connect to, that occupies an emotional register to which he doesn’t relate. We discuss that register, the ways in which the characters behave and respond to one another, the use of chapters to structure the story and narration to tell some of it, and the imagination and life of certain scenes. Many of The Worst Person in the World‘s qualities are obvious, but we don’t agree on its greatness. As they say in Norway, c’est la vie.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 337 – Licorice Pizza

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We’re remotely joined by filmmaker, previous guest, and, crucially, Mike’s brother, Stephen Glass, for a discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s period romance, Licorice Pizza. Stephen last helped us explore Anderson’s previous film, Phantom Thread, and again brings his knowledge of and passion for the director’s work to our discussion.

We consider the efficiency with which Anderson creates rich portraits of characters and their lives from few details; how the blossoming love between the protagonists, a boy of 15 and woman of 25, avoids feeling exploitative or uneasy as the age difference suggests it might; how the film is able to feel loose and free despite conforming to its genre; the likability, or otherwise, of the setting and era; Anderson’s focus on faces and use of reflective surfaces; and whether one particular running joke that begins as hilariously, stunningly outrageous, overplays its hand and ends up in the realm of the unacceptable.

Licorice Pizza is a sweet romance draped in a loving portrait of a particular place and time, and laced with good jokes. Still, your mileage may vary, as Mike’s devoted, grumpy intransigence in the face of José’s and Stephen’s enthusiasm demonstrates, but even he has to admit it’s a very good film.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 334 – Don’t Look Up

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We’ve enjoyed Adam McKay’s previous couple of films, The Big Short and Vice, in which he dramatises real events in a pointed, opinionated, satirical manner. He now brings the same attitude to the apocalypse, painting a picture of a world in which an asteroid is headed on a collision course with Earth, poised to end the human race’s existence unless something is done… and nobody cares.

We debate its merits and failures, agreeing that it’s a comedy with few laughs, but José arguing for its place in the national theatre of ideas that cinema has always been in America, and as a response to that question we’ve been hearing asked for several years now – how can you satirise a reality that’s this absurd to begin with? Mike asks why McKay’s previous films worked where this fails, and suggests that it’s an inability to be indirect, to work in poetic ways – something that’s effective when being openly sarcastic, as in The Big Short and Vice, but that falls short in Don’t Look Up‘s appeal for earnestness and depth of character.

An ambitious film, then, attempting to holistically satirise the state of things as they currently stand – but at best, a mixed bag.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 333 – The Hand of God

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Paolo Sorrentino reaches into his childhood to tell a story that’s in equal parts comic and tragic, with access to the off-kilter and fabulistic, in The Hand of God – whose title references that infamous goal scored by Diego Maradona, who Sorrentino semi-seriously credits with saving his life – as he dramatises here. We discuss the imagery, the familial banter, the curious opening scene, choosing Naples over Rome, and an oddball friendship with a happy-go-lucky smuggler.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 326 – The French Dispatch

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The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s love letter to The New Yorker, is, as you might expect, a charming way to pass a couple of hours – but not as funny or as tight as we might like, and certainly a disappointment in the light of his last two films, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs (although, in fairness, reaching those heights even twice, let alone a third time consecutively, would be a big ask for anybody). Still, despite The French Dispatch‘s pleasures, some gorgeous imagery and a terrific, star-packed cast, we’re left asking what it’s all about, really – is it more than a vaguely diverting trifle based on Anderson’s favourite publication? And why can’t an ode to an icon of American sophistication be set in America?

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 322 – Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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Venom returns after his surprisingly enjoyable, if trashy, 2018 solo debut, but we don’t find much of a way to have fun with this sequel. Its cast is underserved by both the direction and screenplay, Tom Hardy appears to want to be seen as a slob, there’s not a memorable shot throughout, and most of the comedy, while promising in principle, falls flat. Mike asks where the real carnage even is, the film scared to show anything even cartoonishly gory, while José decries the carnage generally present in American cinema in general, this film, like so many, unable to conceive of a way to generate excitement without blowing things up and causing destruction.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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 David Harbour’s – 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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 276 – The Birdcage

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 FollesThe 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.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 272 – Cool Hand Luke

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.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 271 – Soul

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 Beyond 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.

Andrew Griffith has brought to out attention this article you may also find interesting about rumblings of discontent in relation to the film and why it’s turned out surprisingly polarasing.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 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.

 

Many thanks to Andrew Griffin for bringing this excellent video essay to our attention: