Category Archives: Comedy

Blinded by the Light (2019, Gurinder Chadha)

What’s not clear about Blinded by the Light is how much of the film’s success is because of lead Viveik Kalra or because about ninety straight minutes of soundtrack consists of The Best of Bruce Springsteen. The film, based on an actual British Pakistani Springsteen stan, is about teenager Kalra discovering Springsteen at just the right time in his life—it’s 1987, Thatcher’s England has no jobs and overt skinheads (it’s also funny how this film, set in the 80s and in the UK, feels very 2019 for the US), Kalra’s got a controlling dad (Kulvinder Ghir, in the film’s most troubled part), he’s starting at a new school, his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) has got a Pet Shop Boys knock-off band and accompanying style. Kalra’s feeling caged and, after a chance encounter with the only other East Asian guy at his new high school—Aaron Phagura, who’s appealing enough but literally has no personality beyond a smile. Phagura loans Kalra a couple Springsteen tapes; it takes him a few days and a few significantly severe new problems in his life to listen.

Once he does, Light becomes an attempt at visualizing how a person connects with a song. It’s obvious stuff—emphasized lyric excerpts on the screen with some Adobe animation on the text itself—but director Chadha goes all in on it. Get over whether to not it’s creative enough and focus on whether or not it’s functional enough. Because the film tries to avoid ever actually talking about politics. It shows the politics. It shows Ghir gets attacked by Neo-Nazis; they’re matching and blocking the way to Kalra’s cousin’s wedding. But it doesn’t get close to the characters as they experience it. There’s a detached narrative distance, which gets stylized to some degree with the music, but the film never explicitly ties the events surrounding Kalra to the accompanying Springsteen songs. It seems like there’s an intentional clue from Chadha on how to watch the film at one point—Kalra is in an East Asian dance club and puts on Springsteen and watches how the sixteen year-old working class Pakistani girls really are just the sixteen year-old working class American girls in the song. And so on. It’s a great moment, though Chadha doesn’t know how to amplify it. Though Light’s even keel, tone-wise, is one of its most consistent successes. Other than Kalra. And the accompanying Springsteen songs doing their job because they’re Springsteen songs.

The film’s got a lot of inconsistent successes. Something works here for a while, stops working for a while, starts working again. Or something working goes away then comes back, still working. The plot is better than the script, which is most exemplified with dad Ghir. Ghir’s got the film’s biggest personal journey—Kalra’s Bruce Springsteen obsession is indicative of far more serious problems—and Light is way too comfortable letting Ghir be a caricature. When it’s time for Ghir to get a moment to act and not react to someone else, the film cuts away. By the time Ghir starts putting his foot down about Kalra’s very un-Pakistani attitudes, it’s too late for the scene to carry much weight. The film actively encourages everyone involved to give up on Ghir because even as he’s a Springsteen song character too… the way the film grafts it with the working class Pakistani father in the eighties story doesn’t give Ghir much agency. It’s a really effective performance from Ghir, but it’s not a good part.

To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good supporting parts. There are lots of good supporting performances, but the parts are all rushed; if you’re a supporting cast member, you don’t get a complete story arc. You’re lucky if you get even a brief subplot—like Kalra’s sister, Nikita Mehta, clubbing and having a boyfriend—or Kalra’s eventual love interest, Nell Williams, and her struggle against her conservative parents. Williams is a great eighties movie character—the costuming in Light are fantastic, ditto the production design. By Annie Hardings and Nick Ellis, respectively. Director Chadha is definitely able to realize a comprehensive vision here, it’s just a very safe one. The film doesn’t go hard on the musical stuff; there are some musical numbers, which are good, but they go away pretty soon in the second half, replaced by montages, which are different. It also doesn’t go hard on the political stuff. Outside the fight with the Neo-Nazis, Kalra and Ghir are always keeping a stiff upper lip and turning the other cheek as far as the racism goes. And Light never gets into the characters’ heads for their reactions to it.

So the good supporting performances—Mehta, Chapman, mom Meera Ganatra (who gets the film’s worst part, but kind of because it should be from her perspective instead), Williams; Phagura’s fine. He’s got nothing to do but he’s likable. The only iffy performance is Tara Divina as Kalra’s cousin who comes to live with them recently before the movie it seems like… maybe? There’s something murky in the ground situation but she’s a brat and Divina’s too thin about it. Great cameos from Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, David Hayman.

Blinded by the Light hits its target but isn’t aiming high enough; it’s just too middle of the road, leveraging Kalra and Springsteen instead of informing them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gurinder Chadha; screenplay by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor and inspired by music by Bruce Springsteen; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Justin Krish; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Nick Ellis; produced by Jane Barclay, Chadha, and Jamal Daniel; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nell Williams (Eliza), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), David Hayman (Mr. Evans), Hayley Atwell (Ms. Clay), and Rob Brydon (Matt’s father).


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Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


Wildcats (1986, Michael Ritchie)

Wildcats is supposed to be about a woman coaching high school football but it ends up being an unintentionally thorough examination of patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. There’s a lot to unpack; more, actually, than its worth. Because Wildcats isn’t just a failure of a female empowerment picture, it’s also a failure of a White savior picture. Things with Chicago’s “Central High”’s football team haven’t been going well in general—the previous season’s star quarterback quit school to become a criminal and the same bunch of guys who couldn’t get their act together on the team are back again this year because they all are repeating because they’re dumb. Oh, it’s also classist. The team is mostly Black guys, who talk mid-eighties R-rated Black guy jive as written by a White guy (meaning it’s rarely funny, even if the actor’s able to be funny), a handful of Hispanic stereotypes (including the guy translating for the other guy because it’s a sitcom special), and Woody Harrelson. The one thing the team has in common besides being in their early-to-mid-twenties is they hate the idea of a female coach.

So it’s a problem with the only willing football coach the principal can find is Goldie Hawn. See, she asked if she could coach the Junior Varsity team and after saying yes, admittedly good but utterly cartoonish villain Bruce McGill went and gave the job to a gay guy. Wildcats is at its most interesting eighties movie when there’s the homophobia against the gay guy but then the gay guy joins with the other guys in the room for some misogyny. It’s like Wildcats thinks, while telling this story about Hawn ostensibly having her White Savior story arc, having a woman coach the boys’ football team isn’t going to have to make a comment on toxic masculinity. No, it doesn’t, of course; the film doesn’t go there. Ezra Sacks’s screenplay is profoundly bland. But it doesn’t even recognize the position its putting itself in.

Of course, it also fails the White savior story arc because… Hawn’s a woman. She’s not empowered enough to be a White savior. The first act hints at trying it a bit, but then Sacks and director Ritchie’s utter disinterest in any kind of authentic narrative pushes it aside. But if you remember back, during the end of the second act and the first half of the third, it’s stunning to think the movie might have gone for that much of an arc for Hawn. Instead, Hawn’s arc is just finding the right group of men. And once you find the right group of men, well, you can convince the other men out there to acknowledge you. And if you can’t, there’s always punching. But the right men will do it.

It’s like Hawn’s supposed to be the lead of the movie but the movie doesn’t need her. Not just as the coach of the football team—because once they’re over her being a girl it’s all training montages and original soundtrack singles and the games fly by—but as the lead. The opening credits are home movies of Hawn as a child (well, Hawn’s character presumably) and her history with football. Dad was a player or a coach. Maybe both. Doesn’t matter, because Hawn’s history with football and ability as a football coach have nothing to do with the movie. They’re nonsense details. The movie would be no different if Hawn got the job through a clerical error.

Sacks’s script goes with every predictable plot turn—once ex-husband James Keach (who’s not good but perfectly cast as an upper class prig) starts threatening to take Hawn’s kids away from her, anyway. Before Keach comes into the movie it’s just Hawn and the montages and then her trying to get the ex-star quarterback to give up crime for football, which is kind of more likable because even with the bad script you don’t dislike the actors and you wish the script were better for them. With Keach… well, he brings in new girlfriend Jan Hooks, who’s a punching bag for gags (an example of the film’s passive versus active misogyny), but it also gives Robyn Lively more to do. She’s the older daughter. She’s not very good. Her part’s terribly written, Ritchie could give a hoot about directing the actors, but she’s not very good.

So, Keach drags the film down, directly and indirectly. Especially when you get into how badly Sacks writes anything related to White privilege. Like the toxic masculinity, you can tell he notices it and sees it might not be good, but then pushes those thoughts down and acts like it’s okay to have rapey jokes about Hawn from students, as well as Black principal Nipsey Russell get threatened by rich school’s teacher McGill and whatever else I’m forgetting, and to just go with it. There’s one part where the team destroys Hawn’s office and faces no consequence because, well, she needs motivation; she’s a woman after all.

It’s a lot. There’s a lot. And even if you’re willing to forgive a solid amount because it was the eighties, the movie itself still flops around and then fizzles by the end. Ritchie and Sacks not caring about football ends up limiting what they can come up with the final game. The big showdown between Hawn and her nemesis gets hijacked by fat jokes. And Ritchie shooting a bunch of solo inserts of Hawn’s reaction shots to the game when she should be, I don’t know, coaching or something. It’s a really oddly directed movie football game. It’s poorly directed, but also oddly directed.

Though the football games are the only thing Richard A. Harris can edit acceptably. Every other cut in the movie’s a little off. Ritchie has this boring one-shot he always goes with from close-ups and Harris can never figure out how to cut it, even though Ritchie seems to have given him enough coverage.

It’s like no one cared.

James Newton Howard’s score is bad.

Donald E. Thorin’s photography is adequate.

The best technical contribution is Marion Dougherty, who casted. The team is mostly solid, performance-wise, when they need to be. They don’t do great at being assholes, but once they’re okay being coached by a woman, they’re fine. Wesley Snipes has maybe the showiest part, he’s okay. Mykelti Williamson’s okay. Not a good part, but he’s okay.

M. Emmet Walsh’s got a small role and you wish they’d gotten someone else for it, just because it’s Walsh and you want to like him and there’s no reason to like him in Wildcats. Like much of the film, he’s pointless. Sacks’s script doesn’t have anything for its performers. Not good speeches, not good scenes, not good arcs. No one even gets an arc. Not really.

Until Keach comes in strong—which is well over half-way in–Wildcats seems like it’s going to make it to the finish. Not great, not even good, but passable enough. Hawn’s charm can carry a whole lot. And given the movie is supposed to be her movie but instead Ritchie and Sacks do everything they can not to make it her movie, she gets some added sympathy. But that third act is the pits.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Ezra Sacks; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Richard A. Harris; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Anthea Sylbert; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Molly), James Keach (Frank), Mykelti Williamson (Bird), Nipsey Russell (Edwards), Bruce McGill (Darwell), Robyn Lively (Alice), Brandy Gold (Marian), Swoosie Kurtz (Verna), Wesley Snipes (Trumaine), Tab Thacker (Finch), Woody Harrelson (Krushinski), Jsu Garcia (Cerulo), Jan Hooks (Stephanie), Willie J. Walton (Marvel), Rodney Hill (Peanut), and M. Emmet Walsh (Coes).



Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelly)

For most of its runtime, Waitress is a character study. Writer and director Shelly does give the film an epical arc, which doesn’t get fully revealed until the third act (and, arguably, epilogue), but most of the film is spent watching Keri Russell, her character’s actions, reactions, inactions, and her performance. Russell is a small-town waitress in an undetermined Southern town stuck in a dead-end life. She’s married to an abusive prick (Jeremy Sisto), desperately trying to hide away enough money to escape him—her heart set on winning a major pie baking contest (Russell’s a pie-baking virtuoso)—she works in a local diner (appropriately a pie diner, so she at least gets to do what she loves and her two coworkers are good friends), and her life’s been stalled so long she can’t even remember when it was in motion.

Throughout the film, Shelly introduces a couple big expository devices to reveal more and more about Russell. First, she daydreams up her pie recipes, usually as a reaction to what’s going on in her life, usually what’s going wrong in her life. The second device comes later, after the inciting incident—turns out Russell’s pregnant, the result of an offscreen, definitely not enthusiastically consented night of martial relations (Sisto intentionally got her drunk). Russell’s miserable at the thought of being a mom; fellow waitresses, aforementioned good friends Cheryl Hines and director Shelly get Russell a pregnancy journal. One of the features is a place to write to the baby, which eventually gives Russell an outlet. And the audience a fuller picture of her thoughts and how she experiences the film’s events.

Because even though she’s got good friends Shelly and Hines, they’ve all got their secrets. And those secrets are the most important things in their lives. The only one who can see into Russell’s secrets is Andy Griffith, which seems like the most natural sentence in the world. Who else could.

Griffith’s the crotchety old man owner of the diner where Russell and company work. She’s the only one who likes him; he’s mean to everyone else. He’s just the owner, Lew Temple runs the place. Temple’s a crotchety middle-aged man who’s mean to everyone, Russell included. The reason Griffith’s so nice to Russell is because he sees something wonderful in her. So does Sisto as it turns out. And so does Russell’s new doctor, played by Nathan Fillion. While there’s some reciprocity in the first and third relationships—Russell gets nothing but despondence and multiple kinds of pain from being married to Sisto—Russell’s still being used by Griffith and Fillion. There’s a significant, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit power imbalance to the relationships, which Russell takes a while to fully understand.

It’s a great character arc for Russell and the film. Shelly’s got the plot down, just not the plotting of it. She establishes a deliberate, relaxed pace in the first act, speeding it up a little at the start of the second, but then skipping along as the film nears the halfway point. Whole weeks go by offscreen with character development on pause between scenes. Even with Sisto, whose intensified abuse changes Russell’s trajectory multiple times, there’s very little insight and even less deliberation. When things start getting difficult, Russell clamps up; it’s never clear how much her friends know about her home life, ditto Fillion (once their relationship develops, rather unprofessionally, past doctor and patient), and the journal entries become more sporadic and used for emphasis not insight.

It’s not exactly a rocky finish, but the film never slows down to find a new pace. It’s still successful—Shelly’s direction, writing, Russell’s phenomenal performance, the supporting performances, the crew—none of the quality dips, it’s just Shelly goes for aspirational instead of realistic. She’s trying to find a happy ending in it all, which is going to require a lot of contrivance, a lot of coincidence.

Great photography from Matthew Irving; he and Shelly create this gentle but strong light theme, very focused on the actors, emphasizing their performances. There are some great scenes of Russell and Fillion just listening to each other and considering the other’s words. And Russell’s constant waiting for Sisto’s explosions is terrifying. Sisto’s great. Fillion’s good too, but he’s (somewhat intentionally) never deep enough. It’s not a character study about him, after all.

Hines, Shelly, Griffith, Temple, they’re all excellent. Eddie Jemison has a small part and he’s a lot of fun.

Good music from Andrew Hollander, good editing from Annette Davey. Ramsey Avery’s production design is essential.

Waitress is outstanding. It’s got its issues, but thanks to Russell’s performance, Shelly’s directing, her script, the supporting cast… it’s outstanding. Even though the film gets inside Russell’s head, Shelly showcases her performance like it doesn’t. They’re a great team.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly; director of photography, Matthew Irving; edited by Annette Davey; production designer, Ramsey Avery; produced by Michael Roiff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keri Russell (Jenna), Jeremy Sisto (Earl), Nathan Fillion (Dr. Pomatter), Cheryl Hines (Becky), Adrienne Shelly (Dawn), Lew Temple (Cal), Eddie Jemison (Ogie), and Andy Griffith (Old Joe).