Category Archives: Comedy

Born in East L.A. (1987, Cheech Marin)

Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.

Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.

Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.

One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.

Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.

Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.

Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.

Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).


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Rat Race (2001, Jerry Zucker)

If you had told me there was a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as a plot point (a positive one), I don’t know I would’ve believed it. But if there is going to be a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as in a positive cameo… it’s going to be a movie like Rat Race. Rat Race is a big budget situation comedy masquerading as a madcap comedy adventure. Cleese is a Las Vegas casino owner who sends six or seven or twelve random people on a race from Vegas to New Mexico. Whoever gets there first gets two million dollars. Little do the contestants know Cleese has arranged the whole thing as a bet for a group of high owners at the casino.

Though it wouldn’t matter much because the stuff with Cleese and the high rollers is just for interlude gags.

The main race contestants are Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jon Lovitz. Maybe not in screen time (but maybe in screen time, it’s not worth counting), but definitely in extreme gags. Gooding at one point has stolen a charter busload of “I Love Lucy” Lucy cosplayers and Lovitz kind of kidnaps his family to go on the race with him (he doesn’t tell them about the race because he’s Jon Lovitz and it wouldn’t work if he wasn’t a liar). Then there are the couples. Breckin Meyer is a pointlessly straight-laced young lawyer (his character details don’t matter at all) who gets helicopter pilot Amy Smart involved in the race; he’s crushing on her, she’s not crushing on him. Whoopi Goldberg was at the casino to meet long-lost daughter Lanai Chapman; not long-lost but Goldberg gave her up for adoption. Again, the character details don’t end up mattering at all. Once the couples are paired, they’re paired. Like idiot brothers Seth Green and Vince Vieluf (who apparently dropped his agent for not getting him more face time on Rat Race promotional material, but should’ve sued him for letting him do the role, which has him suffering from an infected tongue ring piercing and unintelligible the whole time—Andy Breckman’s screenplay never goes cheap or obvious when it can do both at once). Green’s the weasel, Vieluf’s the dumb lug. Evil George and Lenny, basically. They talk about splitting up for about a half hour of the film’s near two hour runtime but never actually get around to it. Breckman’s script also has its red herrings to fill runtime.

Because somehow it matters Rat Race goes on for near two hours? Like the runtime is going to give it legitimacy.

The last contestant is Rowan Atkinson, who appears to have done Rat Race in yet another attempt to breakthrough in the Colonies. Snideness aside, Atkinson’s great. Everything he does is great. Even when it’s in his dumb subplot involving jackass ambulance driver Wayne Knight and a transplant heart.

Rat Race is kind of a catch-22. The subplots are so bland, you need someone as bland as Meyer do one of them. And, frankly, Smart too. They’re both middling. She’s a little better, but only because Meyer’s unable to appear to listen or think. Green and Vieluf do a lot of terribly executed, large scale physical humor. Director Zucker isn’t necessarily really bad at the giant sight gags, it’s just he’s using CGI and it’s poorly done. And Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is bad. It’s more often less competent than competent. So you don’t care Green and Vieluf are one-note because the scenes are so perfunctory, even when they’re effective. Zucker’s got a couple good shots in the movie—establishing shots for the large-scale sight gags—and they’re the same shot. It’s like he has one good shot, but only two opportunities to use it. The rest of the time… middling direction.

Cleese too. He’s really funny. Especially with those fake teeth. But it’s a movie where the joke is John Cleese in some obviously fake fake teeth.

Dave Thomas has a really small part and, much like Atkinson, is able to get away successful. Goldberg isn’t bad, she’s just not successful. The movie ditches her and Chapman pretty quick, after one really funny sequence.

Gooding and Lovitz are both… inoffensive, while managing to also be the least sympathetic characters in the film. Maybe because Gooding’s supposed to somehow be inherently sympathetic because he’s a victim of unfair public shaming and because Lovitz is supposed to be saddled with an annoying family (wife Kathy Najimy wants to see David Copperfeld instead of gamble and spend time with husband Lovitz because… harpy?; the kids are just annoying, but end up being sympathetic because Lovitz is… Lovitz). I already said Atkinson is great. Who else is there… Green and Vieluf. Vieluf’s more likable than Green and probably better. Green just mugs.

Last thing. The music. Not the Smash Mouth performance, which sucks, but the “score” by John Powell, which reuses familiar classical ditties like In the Hall of the Mountain King and some also La Traviata. Trust me, you’ve heard the music. Probably in television commercials because it’s effective music. Just culturally rote. And that music ends up in some big set pieces, so it’s unclear what Powell’s actually bringing to the film other than making it sound consistent with a television commercial.

Rat Race is cheap and obvious but occasionally funny and usually inoffensive.

And Atkinson is exceptional.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Zucker; written by Andy Breckman; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Tom Lewis; music by John Powell; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Sean Daniel, Janet Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (Owen Templeton), Jon Lovitz (Randy Pear), Rowan Atkinson (Enrico Pollini), Breckin Meyer (Nick Schaffer), Amy Smart (Tracy Faucet), Seth Green (Duane Cody), Vince Vieluf (Blaine Cody), Whoopi Goldberg (Vera Baker), Lanei Chapman (Merrill Jennings), Kathy Najimy (Beverly Pear), Wayne Knight (Zack Mallozzi), Dave Thomas (Harold Grisham), and John Cleese (Donald P. Sinclair).


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Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You has four endings. Well, more like three and a half. They’re all good enough endings, except the last one, which is truncated and just reminds how iffy the entire third act has been. Until the third act, the film is going strong. Underdeveloped but affable lead Lakeith Stanfield–the character is underdeveloped and affable, not the performance; Stanfield’s performance is fantastic–gets a job as a telemarketer and finds out he’s a natural salesman. At least over the phone.

The film takes place in an alternate reality (of sorts). Mostly Sorry just seems like its set in 2028 but with technology from 2008. Smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. Actually, they’re not even present until writer and director Riley needs to use one for a plot point. But society is futuristic, in all the bad–and very realistic–ways, with rich White guy Armie Hammer and his company, which signs people into lifetime work contracts. People live in the warehouse, they work in the warehouse, they (presumably) die in the warehouse. And having a limitless supply of indentured laborers isn’t even enough for Hammer it turns out. Riley does really well conceptualizing the possibilities and inhumanity of capitalist greed, though he doesn’t really execute them particularly well. At least not once the third act hits.

Stanfield’s not thinking of signing up for the work-for-life thing. It seems to be more for people trying to get out of debt. They even take your kids. It’s a background subplot, which ends up figuring in a little, but only because Riley forces it. Riley’s not subtle about Chekov’s gun. Guns, actually. There’s also the most popular TV show in the world, where people get beat up on camera for… notoriety? It’s never clear. There’s a fame culture but without the new media infrastructure (even though YouTube gets a big mention).

So while Stanfield’s trying to make the telemarketer thing work (selling crappy encyclopedias–again, there’s no wikipedia?), his girlfriend Tessa Thompson is working on an art show while making ends meet as a sign twirler. She’s got a really undeveloped subplot about becoming an activist protesting Hammer’s work-for-life company. Her art show is also really undeveloped, though sensational when Riley finally gets to it. Thompson is, in general, really undeveloped.

Simultaneous to Stanfield’s rise to telemarketer success is the other employees (including Thompson) trying to unionize. Steven Yeun is the outside agitator who gets things started–by leveraging Stanfield’s success, which comes off as exploitative but goes unexplored–and Jermaine Fowler is Stanfield’s friend who stays true to his fellow workers. One of the big problems, which doesn’t matter because the movie’s so funny, is how unbelievable the telemarketing company comes off. It’s not believable anyone could sell the crappy encyclopedias, so how do they have enough employees to fill a call center. The always good, sometimes exceptional laughs fill in the spaces too wide for suspensions of disbelief.

Once Stanfield gets super successful he’s unknowingly put on a collision course with Hammer, who needs a good salesman like Stanfield. Just like Stanfield, who’s an affable Black man who can talk to White people the way White people want to be talked to. Riley’s commentary on capitalism and its disgustingly obvious roadmap takes precedence over any exploration of race. Race is always present–sometimes it’s on the fore–but it’s always secondary, even when it shouldn’t be.

Just like the comedy in the first two acts covers for the narrative leaps or avoidances, Riley uses sensationalism–absurdist sensationalism–to cover in the third. Because Stanfield doesn’t really get a character arc. He’s on a story arc, but he was so thinly established (Riley leveraging Stanfield’s performance) it doesn’t add up to much. And then three and a half endings muss things up more. Each in different ways.

All of the acting is strong. Stanfield’s a spectacular leading man. Thompson’s good, even if her part is only deep in exposition. Yeun’s good. Fowler’s somewhat inconsequential–Sorry feels like things got cut either from the final cut or from the script; Fowler’s just around. Omari Hardwick’s fine as one of Stanfield’s bosses, though he’s a sight gag versus the other bosses–Michael X. Sommers, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant–who are all absurdly funny. Hammer’s perfect for the part but almost brings too much self-awareness and humanity to it. Danny Glover and Terry Crews are great in extended cameos.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Riley’s direction, Doug Emmett’s photography, Terel Gibson’s editing. Especially Gibson’s editing, which does a lot but without any fanfare whatsoever.

Sorry to Bother You is really good. It’s almost great. But the third act is a mess.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Boots Riley; director of photography, Doug Emmett; edited by Terel Gibson; music by The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Riley, and Tune-Yards; production designer, Jason Kisvarday; produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker, and Kelly Williams; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr. _______), Terry Crews (Sergio), Kate Berlant (Diana), Michael X. Sommers (Johnny), Danny Glover (Langston), Robert Longstreet (Anderson), and Forest Whitaker (Demarius).


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Sensitivity Training (2016, Melissa Finell)

Sensitivity Training is… an easy (but not in a pejorative way) comedy with winning (but not in a sarcastic way) lead performances. It’s never daring, but it has some good laughs. It’s better than middle of the road but it there’s not much exciting about it. Director Finell does a great job with a low budget as far as the filmmaking goes–Finell and cinematographer Paul Cannon have nice widescreen shots, Finell and editor David Egan keep a brisk pace (the film’s eighty-six minutes or so). And Paul Chihara’s music is a great. Very energetic and emotive. It’s impressively executed, given its scale.

Which makes some of the script choices annoying, actually. Like, Finell writes way too broadly even in scenes where she could afford precision. The script’s too conservative for what the film can do. But the script’s still perfectly fine and often really funny. It gives leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jill E. Alexander decent showcase material. Gives them great parts, not great roles. Like, there’s a whole “everyone is a caricature” thing going on even though it’s all about Phillips having to learn empathy after she maybe causes a tragedy at work due to her personality.

Phillips is a very abrasive scientist who appears to be the only scientist in the world aware of an imminent bacterial infection. Sensitivity Training’s sunny world–where Alexander’s daughter, Courtney Fansler, would never actually get teased for having two moms–also appears to have cured childhood leukemia or something. There’s a lot of science going on in Sensitivity Training and it ostensibly means a lot to Phillips, but it doesn’t mean anything to Finell’s script.

Meanwhile Alexander is a sexual harassment counselor who makes sexually harassing men sign apology statements. It’s not until she starts trying to make Phillips empathetic she realizes it’s a terrible job–the sexual harassment thing–and bad. Alexander doesn’t get much character stuff to herself. Finell usually uses it for a joke, which is funny about–say, kids’ birthday parties–but less funny when about sexual harassment.

So most of the movie is Alexander trying to get Phillips to treat people nicer, mostly her lab workers–quietly essential Quinn Marcus (who doesn’t get enough to do) and background filler Amy Vorpahl and Andy Gala–but also her younger half-brother, Finnegan Haid. The stuff with Haid makes no sense in the narrative, but it’s fine. They play well off each other. Everyone works well with each other in their scenes, no crowding.

Eventually, of course, there’s crisis and drama and big-time introspective character development for Phillips, who’s otherwise had zero self-awareness in the film (to an absurd degree but still fine given the film’s soft take on reality), and a somewhat perfunctory wrap-up where Finell reveals she wasted like six of the eighty-six minutes on a total MacGuffin just for a couple smiles not even laughs. So. When the film’s really funny, those laughs have a lot of weight on them. And they hold up.

Phillips and Alexander are both good. But they don’t get anything too tough. Quinn gets the internal subplot but almost no time for it and she’s real good. Amy Madigan’s great as Phillips and Haid’s mom. She should’ve been in it more, especially how she and Phillips play off each other. Charles Haid’s fine as the dad, though just fine. He executive produced the film so if it’s a stunt cameo, it’s not a good one.

Finell’s a good director. Sensitivity Training is a good comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything but amuse, even when it’s got potential to do more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Melissa Finell; director of photography, Paul Cannon; edited by David Egan; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Richard H. Perry; produced by Finell and Megha Kohli; released by Random Media.

Starring Anna Lise Phillips (Serena), Jill E. Alexander (Caroline), Quinn Marcus (Ellen), Finnegan Haid (Ethan), Amy Vorpahl (Joan), Andy Gala (Dr. Hamilton), Michael Laskin (Dr. Donald Pierson), Gregory Itzin (Barry), Amy Madigan (Nancy), Charles Haid (Glenn), Courtney Fansler (Maggie), and Challen Cates (Dr. Laura Stern).


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