Hal Ashby’s dark romantic comedy was panned by several prominent critics upon release at the start of 1972, but it has since developed a cult following and has been comprehensively reappraised; in fact it’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about it today. The film stars Bud Cort as Harold – a young man who is obsessed with death, regularly mocking up fake suicide attempts at home – and Ruth Gordon as Maude, a 79-year-old woman who shares Harold’s interest in attending the funerals of strangers. Though there’s a huge age gap between them – enough to put many people off watching it, then and now – there’s an undeniable sweetness to their relationship as it develops during the film, and her positivity and joie-de-vivre seems to have an effect on the morose young lad, who has lightened up by the end. The screenplay is very funny from the off: in the opening scene we deduce from Harold’s mother’s unimpressed reaction that the suicide attempt we have apparently just witnessed is a) a hoax and b) the latest in a long line of similar attempts by Harold to shock. His ‘deaths’ become funnier as their staging becomes more elaborate – whether by using fake blood or burning a human-shaped figure doused in gasoline. It’s similar to the effect of the plays in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore – and this film is clearly a huge influence, in terms of its whimsy, its black comedy and its characters. Harold And Maude is also bitter at times, not least in the way it shows the fate that can befall a young member of a cold, uncaring, preoccupied upper class American family, but also in its frankness regarding aging and (real) death. Excellent performances, and there’s a wonderful soundtrack by Cat Stevens, too. (****)
This black comedy by Onur Tukel has an interesting premise and a couple of decent performances, though the film starts to drag well before the end and the humour – including some clumsily-delivered satirical elements – loses impact as a result of repetition. Sandrah Oh and Anne Heche star as a pair of former college peers named Veronica and Ashley whose paths through life since university have deviated considerably. Veronica does not work and enjoys a luxurious lifestyle as a result of the wealth of her businessman husband, a smug douchebag who celebrates an impending war in the Middle East (the film never specifies where, exactly) because it is going to make him even richer, though that glibness is wickedly turned on its head as the movie progresses. Meanwhile Ashley is a struggling artist whose work reveals a deep-rooted unhappiness and is completely unappreciated by gallerists. Their lives may have gone in wildly different directions – one is straight, with a teenage son and a husband who is possibly gay, the other is in a relationship with a woman (Alicia Silverstone) who is desperate to have a baby, but as the story develops it becomes clear that the pair do also have things in common, such as a generally dismissive attitude to the people who work for them.
The film is, essentially, a situation-swap comedy; following a chance meeting at a party, Veronica and Ashley have a bitter argument that eventually develops into the fight the title alludes to; the brutality of this all-out paggering is startling and faintly amusing, with the two actors put through their physical paces. One of the women wakes up in a coma a couple of years later having lost everything, while the other woman’s life seems to have gone from strength to strength in the same period of time; both of the women’s relationships with the other women who worked for them also change. This first act is quite good, but Tukel lays the tragedy on a little thick hereafter and repeats the catfight two more times, to diminishing effect. As a result the film seems to be treading water for an hour after Veronica and Ashley first trade blows in a stairwell, and there’s no real reward for anyone who stays with it until their final, final showdown. Interspersed are unfunny TV clips in which discourse about the war in the Middle East is dismissed in favour of a man who amplifies his farts through a cone, a heavy-handed comment on the media that is repeated far too many times throughout the movie; the clips also illustrate the level of Tukel’s satire throughout the film, which hits a nadir when three trees are compared to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. By its end Catfight is little more than a series of sequences that feel like sketches or scenes that were left in from previous drafts of the screenplay, and the script itself is leaden, with way too many clunky lines left in that strip the film of any remaining subtlety. Sadly, after a promising start, this comedy completely loses its way, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say about violence, war, motherhood or fate. (**½)
Woody Allen’s early 70’s portmanteau about sex has long been held-up as a comic gem, and I remember enjoying it when I first watched it 20 or so years ago, but this time round a lot simply fell flat and I didn’t find myself laughing all that much. The more celebrated sketches – which include Gene Wilder falling in love with a sheep and a Numbskulls-style scenario in which Burt Reynolds barks orders to a man’s brain and Allen plays a sperm about to head off into the unknown – are still pretty good, but the fact is there’s rather a lot of filler here that doesn’t quite measure up. The settings and ideas are varied, at least. Sorry! (**½)
I can’t remember a time when Hollywood comedies were as unambitious as they generally have been to date during 2016, though that’s not to say we’ve reached a nadir just yet, and if we have then Jon Lucas’ and Scott Moore’s Bad Moms certainly isn’t to blame; there are some well-written jokes here, after all, as well as some cheap, throwaway lines that are equally funny, and the delivery of the main actors is just fine. It’s a comedy, and it makes you laugh, and of course that’s enough to satisfy a lot of people ($120m and counting against a budget of $20m). But shouldn’t we be expecting more? This thing feels like it has come right off a conveyor belt, given that it’s yet another one of those slightly risqué people-behaving-irresponsibly affairs that are currently in vogue (see also Bad Neighbours, Dirty Grandpa, Horrible Bosses, etc.), though perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it’s directed by the guys who wrote The Hangover. At present these types of films are the most formulaic that I can think of in terms of mainstream cinema; by contrast the oft-pilloried blockbusters that fit within tightly-controlled superhero and sci-fi universes are made with way more flair and skill, are far more likely to surprise. It’s quite depressing to see the sheer number of comedies on general release each year that seem to hit every same damned beat in terms of the choice of soundtrack (and indeed the points at which certain types of music kick in), the nature of the comedy, the thinly-drawn characters, the untaxing plots, the lack of ambition with regard to the cinematography, and the rushed, this’ll-do nature of the acting. (‘Hey, it’s just comedy,’ I hear you say. ‘There’s no need to overthink things’. To which I reply ‘Leave. Now. Please. Our differences are irreconcilable and it’s best if we go our separate ways’.)
In this film Mila Kunis plays Amy Mitchell, the stressed-out mother of two school-age kids, who is trying hard to combine her busy job at a (well-lampooned) hipster coffee company with her duties as a parent. She has little-to-no support from her lazy, buffoonish husband (David Walton) and extra hassle from the school’s tyrannical PTA, led by Christina Applegate’s domineering Gwendoline, while her boss (Clark Duke) is an imbecile and her children aren’t grateful for all the effort she puts in. A particularly bad 24 hours leads Amy to tell everyone – boss, PTA, husband, kids – to go to hell, and she finds two kindred spirits (Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell) who want to join her in behaving badly in the supermarket aisle, getting drunk, going to the flicks instead of ironing and – gasp! – turning up at the bakeathon with shop-bought donuts and a bad attitude. It’s all bawdy, knockabout fun, with references to penises and vaginas and drugs and other used-to-be taboos, and the best material here skewers the draconian nature of PTAs and extra-curricular activities generally (the PTA meeting about ingredients that can’t be used in the bakeathon is a hoot, and a showcase for Applegate’s fine comic timing). There are some basic, positive messages here about women not being doormats and teaching kids to stop being entitled little brats and the like, too, if you’re willing to take the film at face value, though it is written and directed by two men and its rampant celebration of consumerism and wealthy, upper-middle-class lifestyles might put people off. Hahn, Bell, Applegate and Jada Pinkett Smith (as another PTA committee member) are good value, while Kunis – who looks like someone who has just strolled onto the set after a month-long holiday in The Bahamas, as opposed to an overworked mom who has been running at 200mph for the past decade – is up to the task of playing straight while the madness revolves around her. So, all in all it’s OK, even if it is just another one of those paper-thin comedies. A big financial success, though, so no doubt we’ll be seeing more.
Directed by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore.
Written by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore.
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jay Hernandez, Annie Mumolo, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, David Walton, Wendell Pierce.
Cinematography: Jim Denault.
Editing: Emma E. Hickox, James Thomas.
Music: Christopher Lennertz, Various.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
In this action thriller spoof Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele – hitherto best known for their Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele – play a couple of mild-mannered ‘ordinary’ guys who become embroiled in gang-related crime. This happens because a drug dealer named Cheddar (Method Man) steals the cute kitten (the titular Keanu) that turned up at the door of recently-dumped stoner Rell (Peele) and … whatever; the point is two vaguely-nerdy friends aren’t gangsters but they must walk the walk and talk the talk in order to infiltrate Cheddar’s crew and get the cat back.
Keanu is smarter than the average comedy – though otherwise it shares the same limited technical ambition that has recently blighted the genre – and I’m led to believe it’s much funnier than many other recent movies with similar fish-out-of-water concepts, such as the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart vehicle Get Hard (which I haven’t seen and probably never will see). Writers Peele and Alex Rubens play around with racial stereotyping and identity politics in an arch and witty fashion, they incorporate warm homages to a variety of different well-known movies and there are some good jokes relating to Key’s character’s love of George Michael, though the whole thing starts to run out of steam 30 or 40 minutes from the end. Keanu‘s first hour is entertaining, though, helped along by the main duo’s chemistry and some game supporting performances (including cameos by Keanu Reeves and Anna Faris, both playing versions of themselves).
Directed by: Peter Atencio.
Written by: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens.
Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Will Forte, Luis Guzmán.
Cinematography: Jas Shelton.
Editing: Nicholas Monsour.
Music: Steve Jablonsky, Nathan Whitehad.
Running Time: 100.
Few directors have tapped into the zeitgeist as successfully as Stanley Kubrick managed to with his seventh feature: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb relentlessly mocks American Cold War hysteria and the fervent ‘anti-Commie’ nationalism of the early 1960’s, ending with a scene in which a pilot in a cowboy hat sits astride a hydrogen bomb, shouting ‘yee-ha!’ as it plummets toward a Russian target (the US would have an actual, real-life movie cowboy eyeing up the ol’ Red Menace within 16 years, of course). Still, it seems as though American audiences at the time were able to take the ribbing, and Dr. Strangelove is still widely considered to be a comedy classic on that side of the Atlantic today, though over there and over here in the UK one or two prominent critics have since questioned the film’s occasional lack of subtlety (those names!) as well as its sneery, superior tone. (The fact that co-screenwriter Terry Southern was an American lends a degree of much-needed legitimacy to the film’s holier-than-thou barbs, if you ask me).
The first test screening for Kubrick’s pitch-black satire was due to take place on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. The film’s release date was duly put back a few months to January 1964, as it was felt that the American public was in no mood for a Cold War comedy; the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of many, as well, and the long- and short-term stability and future of the US looked far from certain at the time. It’s no surprise, then, that there were concerns as to how the central conceit – that an insane American Brigadier General has the ability to single-handedly launch a nuclear attack on Russia, thereby triggering Armageddon – would play out with audiences, but the film was a critical and commercial success, and it became Columbia’s biggest hit of the year. (That said, its box office receipts do pale in comparison next to Goldfinger, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, the three highest-grossing smashes of 1964, and it wasn’t even the most popular Peter Sellers film that year, earning less than both The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark.)
There’s much to enjoy here, but I’ll just run through a few highlights. Sellers is in fine fettle, playing three of the film’s principal characters: first the Terry-Thomas-like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a man whose stiff English politesse ensures he spends far too long tiptoeing around nutjob Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the man who has set the wheels of war in motion; secondly the American President Merkin Muffley, who Sellers plays fairly straight for the most part, though there’s some terrific ad-libbing when he’s on the phone to his Russian counterpart; and lastly Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound scientist and former Nazi whose own apparent craziness during the final stages of the film seems to capture the ridiculousness of the situation better than any other character. Sellers was due to play a fourth part – a contractual stipulation insisted on by Columbia in the wake of the previous Sellers/Kubrick collaboration Lolita – but after much protestation and a sprained ankle the role of the cowboy pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong went to rodeo rider and actor Slim Pickens. Sellers was relieved; Pickens, if the rumour is to be believed, thought that the film was a straight drama.
Sellers was nominated for an Oscar, and when he subsequently lost out to My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison, the Academy was accused of opting for the safe, conservative choice. Yet I think there are better comic performances in the film, notably by Hayden and George C. Scott, who plays the jingoistic US Air Force General Buck Turgidson with a wholly-necessary brashness and swagger (sample quote: ‘Gee, I wish we had one of those doomsday machines’). Hayden was apparently happy to chew scenery, but Scott and Kubrick argued on set about the more outlandish behaviour of the Turgidson character, the former suggesting it needed to be toned down if the film was to work. However the director cajoled the actor into performing at least one over-the-top take of each scene, which he supposedly promised would not be considered for inclusion in the editing suite; as it turned out this was a lie, and apparently at least three of the takes made it into the final cut, causing Scott to state at a later date that he would never work with Kubrick again.
Then we have the brilliant sets, designed by Ken Adam, which occupied three main sound stages at Shepperton Studios. The most iconic, of course, is the cavernous war room, with its giant oval table, suspended UFO-style light and the large map that hangs on the wall, its blinking LEDs offering a constant, awful reminder of the terrible event about to occur. Adam also designed the magnificent lairs in Dr. No and Goldfinger, but this must surely rank as one of his best achievements, and I like to think that it was his idea to add in the (even bigger!) buffet table that repeatedly attracts the Soviet Ambassador, who seems more concerned with the state of his stomach than the apparent end of the world. Whoever it was deserves a pat on the back. This space is big, and much of it is empty, contrasting with the mock-up of the interior of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber on its way to Russia, which is cramped, with little room for maneouvre. In this plane and on the army base where Ripper and Mandrake can be found we constantly see posters in the background that state ‘Peace Is Our Profession’, the motto of the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, here shown up for what it is: a ridiculous and wholly inappropriate ad slogan. These posters seem to define those two sets more than any one piece of furniture ever could.
Arguably the most impressive element of Dr. Strangelove is the screenplay by Kubrick and Southern, who used Peter George’s ‘serious’ suspense novel Red Alert as a basis. There is an undeniable superciliousness to the script that has often been attributed to Kubrick (as well as the incessant ad-libs by Sellers), but one can’t deny the sheer pleasure obtained from hearing the dry, witty lines that are casually tossed toward the attendant viewer amidst all the doom and gloom (a perennial favourite being Muffley’s assertation ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room’ as political bigwigs squabble next to him). I also love Turgidson’s desperate plea ‘Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board!’ as the Russian emissary arrives, as if that even matters in the face of mass human extinction. The writing is key in terms of balancing the utter horror and hopelessness of the situation – still just as scary a prospect today as it ever was, even if the actual specifics of the missile launch in the film are as ludicrous as they were in 1964 – with the ridiculousness of (male) human nature; even in the direst of circumstances these men exhibit an unshakeable desire to preserve self-interest or to improve their own lives, and also to maintain some kind of order, or respect for protocol. Meanwhile everything around them is turning to shit and their own idiosyncracies or incompetence damns us all. Ultimately that’s something we don’t want to contemplate too deeply in real life, but we can certainly laugh at the idea of it here.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Based on Red Alert by Peter George.
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Editing: Anthony Harvey.
Music: Laurie Johnson.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Though there have been some dips in his career, Shane Black has a stronger claim than most to the title of Master of the Hollywood Buddy Comedy, with a number of his wisecrack-heavy screenplays giving birth to some memorable double acts who just manage to remain on the right side of the law: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr and Val Kilmer, to name but a few. His latest crime drama – irreverent, often funny, set in late 1970’s Los Angeles and based on a screenplay originally written 15 years ago – features Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a duo tasked with locating a missing woman who has entered the porn industry in order to subversively spread a message about corruption and air pollution (as you do). Initially Black pits Gosling’s down-on-his-luck, booze-addled, inept and widowed PI Holland March and Crowe’s enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy against one another, and there are quite a few laughs raised as the two characters are established, partly thanks to their violent and mistrustful interactions with one another. March is a morally-bankrupt investigator who has no problem taking payments off old ladies he cannot possibly help, and he’s an irresponsible father, too, which means that his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to step up and act like an adult to keep the household running. Healy, meanwhile, has even fewer scruples, given that he accepts payments to beat up strangers, and although the moral issues concerned do appear to be eating away at the character Black employs fairly transparent plot devices to get the audience on-side (look, everyone, rough justice dished out to a potential paedophile! Hooray!).
As with Black’s hugely entertaining debut as a director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the fun largely comes from seeing the two characters interact with one another and the various residents of LA their investigation leads them to, ranging from kids on the street to hardened criminals to those attending Boogie Nights-style adult film industry-sponsored parties (several actresses are required to go topless; the film is written, directed and produced by nine men). Like Black’s earlier film there are nods to LA’s long history as a setting for noir, neo-noir and crime thrillers more generally: here we have another pair of soft-boiled/hard-boiled mismatched PIs attempting to get their heads around a complex, sprawling case while being sidetracked by various temptations, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen that play out. Just last year Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice did the same, using LA’s fog as a symbol for its protagonist’s confusion, as opposed to smog, and I suppose there are some similarities between Joaquin Phoenix’s stoned Doc Sportello and Gosling’s drunk March. I suppose you could make a case that Black’s films do pay heed to writers like Cain, Chandler, Pynchon and Leonard as much as they obviously reference filmmakers as diverse as P.T. Anderson, Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, but he’s barely interested in the nuts and bolts of detective work or the way that crime in LA operates, and clearly too reliant on the dynamics of investigating duos, and the way in which these oddball pairings can be mined for comedy.
Of the two stars Gosling gets the greater share of the comic moments, largely because of his character’s utter incompetence, although while Crowe’s role is ostensibly as a hard/straight man the Australian actor regularly amuses too. So, in summary: you’ve seen this film before – and possibly many times over – albeit under different guises and with slightly tweaked scenarios and characters; there are no marks for originality, although Black’s screenplay is one of the more witty, knowing ones, at least. Watching another crime story develop in which a young, wise-beyond-their-years child ends up having a strong influence over events may cause your eyes to roll, too, as it did mine, and it’s obvious that Holly is only there to deflect away accusations of sexism and misogyny. However, that all said, Black’s writing is generally sharp and for the most part The Nice Guys is entertaining Saturday night fayre. It doesn’t really matter that the plot rambles along, incorporating corruption within the Justice Department and the motor industry as well as the porn and air pollution material; really it’s all just background nonsense to enable Gosling and Crowe to do and say funny things. Which they manage, repeatedly.
Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp, Murielle Telio, Keith David.
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.
Editing: Joel Negron.
Music: David Buclkey, John Ottman, Various.
Running Time: 116 minutes.