REVIEW – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

My fourth review from the recently released Almodovar Collection!  Having adored What Have I Done to Deserve This? and been thoroughly unimpressed by Law of Desire, I find myself charmed by Almodovar’s greatest success; the gorgeous melodramatic farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, my review of which can be found at FilmJuice over here.

British people retain a fading racial memory of the art house films that Channel 4 used to broadcast before it went into the business of bashing marginalised groups. French people, on the other hand, retain similar memories of the days when French TV would broadcast live performances of new plays. I’m too young to remember what any of these plays were about but I do remember a lot of romantic misunderstandings and a lot of slamming doors. The reason for these memories is that French theatre and comedy retain a long-standing commitment to the aesthetics of the farce.

The discourse surrounding British comedy places most works on a graph mapping movements from light to dark and realistic to stylised. For example, The Office is realistic and moderately dark while The IT Crowd is stylised and light-hearted and Dad’s Army is realistic but light. As is often the case in Anglo-Saxon cultures, the darker and more realistic your stylings, the more seriously you are taken…

Continental comedy seldom travels to Britain as it can come across as overly broad. The reason for this is that, unlike British comedy, continental comedy traditions have steadfastly refused to get sucked into the same grimdark aesthetic hierarchy as the Anglo-Saxons. On the continent, people realise that a good French farce can be just as high-minded and socially aware as a bitter sweet BBC comedy-drama dealing with depression (and possibly starring Martin Clunes). I mention this as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a superb example of an intelligent European comedy in that it says really interesting things about the emotional lives of women but reflects these ideas through a maze of silly sight gags and knob jokes.

“As was already obvious in Law of Desire, Almodóvar’s women are complex and paradoxical creatures while his men are nothing but objects of desire that illicit feelings more complex than they could ever hope to experience for themselves.”



Spy (2015) — Wanting to Fuck Someone Does Not Mean that they are Good at their Job

People have been making spy film parodies for almost as long as they have been making spy films. As early as 1951, Paramount cast Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy as both a sophisticated international spy and the bumbling stand-up comedian who happened to resemble him. Right from the start, this cinematic formula proved so incredibly successful that it began to have an influence on the source material and so many conventional spy films and TV series of the 1960s went out of their way to incorporate the kinds of sight gags and deconstructive energies that had once been used to mock the genre from the outside. Indeed, the only tangible difference between The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart is that Don Adams seemed to realise that his character was a self-important fool while Robert Vaughn did not. By the 1980s, the conventional spy film was so far beyond parody that Roger Moore was allowed to turn James Bond into the straight middle-aged equivalent of high camp while films such as Spies Like Us and True Lies functioned as both conventional action films and satirical comedies without even a trace of tonal dissonance.

The public’s growing inability to tell the difference between films about spies and films taking the piss out of spies also served to deprive espionage satires of their political edge. Despite realising that it was impossible to satirise a genre that had progressed beyond parody some twenty-five years previously, many filmmakers went down the path of producing broader and broader satires of a genre that no longer existed as anything other than a comic punching bag for hacks like Mike Myers or the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer partnership that would eventually wind up creating such cinematic monstrosities as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.

Though it is hard to think of a more degraded cinematic genre, the spy movie parody has nonetheless managed to produce a number of truly classic and devastatingly pointed films: Often imitated but rarely understood, Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe depicts the intelligence services as a bunch of self-important and unaccountable bureaucrats who spend all their time chasing their own tails in an effort to commandeer more power and funding from a political class that lacks the courage to recognise their pointlessness. Equally brutal is Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which depicts the French secret service as a bunch of racist thugs who use the trappings of state power to legitimise a playboy lifestyle that takes them from one sun-drenched swimming pool to another as women and members of marginalised groups look on in anger and disgust. Though Paul Feig’s Spy does not approach the savagery of either of these two films, it is an action/comedy that does action very well and a comedy with real satirical bite. Ostensibly a satire of Bourne-era spy films, Spy is best understood as an exploration of the Halo Effect and the idea that physically attractive people are anything other than a bunch of incompetent narcissists benefiting from society’s libidinous good will.


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REVIEW – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa posterFilmJuice have my review of Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, easily one of the most disappointing films I have seen this year.

Despite his familiarity to and broad popularity with British audiences, the character of Alan Partridge is something of a cult figure; A comedy grotesque born not only from the self-conscious egotism of Steve Coogan but also the subtle brilliance of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, two of the most respected and influential writers in contemporary British comedy. Over the years, Partridge has undergone a slow process of evolution from little more than a means of mocking sports journalism to a a more rounded critique of low-end British celebrity and eventually middle-aged masculinity in general. That which began as Motson continued as Wogan and Titchmarsh before concluding as your dad. Given that each turn of the creative handle has injected more history and depth into the character, it is strange to find the beautifully nuanced Partridge of Welcome to the Places of My Life turn up in a knockabout cinematic comedy. Indeed, many of the problems with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa stem from the fact that the film’s writers keep wanting to produce character comedy in a film set up to deliver broad and accessible jokes. Little surprise that this film seems to have encountered significant problems during the production process:

Most DVD releases contain making-of documentaries that are really little more than advertising designed to convince everyone that actors and crew all had an amazing time making the film. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa breaks violently with that tradition by inadvertently laying bare the film’s tortured production history. The first warning sign appears when Steve Coogan apologises to his fellow actors for the lack of a finished script. From there we move on to talk about on-camera improvisation and some absolutely extraordinary footage in which Colm Meaney appears to be working out his character’s motivations on set while other actors mention the fact that they were frequently given their lines on the morning on which they were due to film the scene. This lack of a clear vision going into the project is evident not only in the sloppy narrative but also the comparative weakness of many of the jokes. Compared to your average cinematic comedy or TV sitcom, this film’s gag-rate is surprisingly low and when the jokes do come they invariably feel as though they could have been improved by a couple of re-writes. In fact, aside from a few good lines and a genuinely funny dream sequence, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is not a particularly funny film. It is not only less funny and less well made than such recent comedies as Bridesmaids, it is significantly less funny than Michael Lehmann’s 1994 comedy Airheads, whose plot is almost identical to that of Alpha Papa.

This is one of those films where you wish you could be a fly on the wall during production meetings as almost every aspect of the film seems to have gone wrong from the choice of locations to the choice of plot right through to the way in which the actors worked on set.

How actors work on set is actually a fascinating question as the rise of Judd Apatow seems to have ushered in an entirely new approach to the production of cinematic comedy. The reason why the trailers for films like Bridesmaids and Get Him to The Greek (both produced by Apatow) feature different iterations of the jokes that appear in the final films is that many contemporary comedies work by shooting numerous variations on the same basic gags. Sometimes these differences will be comedic in nature (different pace, different props, different lines), sometimes they will be technical (different angles, different lightings) and sometimes they will bring out different aspects of the plot or characters, but what all of these differences do is shift the act of creating the film from something that happens in the writers’ heads before production starts to something that happens in the heads of the editors and directors after production has completed.

Given the information contained in the astonishingly candid making-of featurette included on the DVD, it is tempting to conclude that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa tried to use both approaches at the same time and wound up locating the creative act in the minds of writers and actors as they were sitting on set. Indeed, we see that Coogan and Meaney had a good deal of freedom in creating their parts on set and yet supporting actors were given their parts on the morning in which they were expected to shoot. This suggests that the film went through a continuous process of re-writing in which spontaneous acts of creativity would shape and reshape the characters who were supposed to serve as basis for much of the comedy. This also explains why so many of the gags felt under-written: The writers simply did not have time to finesse them. An experienced director could have imposed order on this process but the producers of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa went with Declan Lowney, whose directorial experience lies mostly in TV comedies like Father Ted. Again, the making-of featurette reveals quite a lot about Lowney’s role as it is full of images of Coogan either directly undermining Lowney or assuming the type of leadership position that you would normally associate with a director.


REVIEW – Creepshow (1982)

creepshowFilmJuice have my review of George A. Romero’s infamous horror/comedy Creepshow. Infamous… not because it’s particularly funny or scary, but rather because it features the film’s writer Stephen King playing a dungaree-clad redneck simpleton who slowly turns into a hedge. Creepshow is something of an odd cultural artifact as, despite having an incredibly famous writer and an incredibly famous director, the film is actually quite shit. Indeed, re-watching the film and scowling my way through its terrible gags and ineffectual scares, I was struck by the fact that this film’s fame owes less to the film itself than it does to its impeccable geek heritage. As I put it in my review:

Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand.  Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.

The nostalgia I speak of is nostalgia for a range of oddball horror comics published in the 1950s by a company called EC. As I explain in my review, before being wound down into a rump publishing little more than Mad Magazine, EC acquired a huge following by pioneering the combination of comedy and horror at a time when comics were being broken on the rack of public opinion for their supposed role in creating juvenile delinquents. Despite being something of a flash in the pan, the sensibility pioneered by EC was immensely influential on American babyboomers and traces of EC heritage can be found not only in the work of George A. Romero and Stephen King but also people like Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi and anyone from that generation who took it upon themselves to direct a horror/comedy. The problem is that, while the ‘boomers clearly loved their EC comics, they drank so deeply from the wellspring and returned to it so often that the idea explored by the EC comics themselves now seem incredibly dated and dull. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better because everyone who ever read an EC comic decided to borrow the idea and make a film about it.

At the time, Creepshow must have seemed like a great idea and given how many 1980s film critics must have read EC comics as children, I’m sure the sense of shared love and nostalgia was universal. However, while nostalgia is an incredibly potent force that excuses many great cultural ills, it doesn’t transfer between generations meaning that while EC comics might have meant a lot to ‘boomers, they don’t mean anything to people like me. In fact, I’m more like to be nostalgic for the work of Romero and King than I am for the work that inspired them. Stripped of its shield of nostalgic good will, Creepshow reveals itself as poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly made.

I got into this question when I reviewed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell back in 2009:

What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism.  The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages.  Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits.  A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers.  Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house.  I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsies except that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.

At which point, Patrick Hudson appeared in the comments and mentioned not only Creepshow, but also nostalgia for EC comics. At the time, I was unimpressed by the suggestion that nostalgia somehow made Sam Raimi’s antitziganism acceptable but since then, my position has hardened even further: Nostalgia does not travel between generations and any attempt to force the issue (as in the case of Olivier Assayas’ recent love letter to the 1960s) is likely to result in a film that makes its creator look either sentimental, simple-minded or politically reactionary.

REVIEW – I’m So Excited! (2013)

Im-So-Excited-2013FilmJuice have my review of Pedro Almodovar’s thoroughly underwhelming comedy I’m So Excited!

When I’m So Excited! was released earlier this year, I was sceptical. I was sceptical despite my enduring love for Almodovar’s Bad Education and despite the fact that Sight & Sound magazine made a massive fuss over it. I was sceptical because I thought (and continue to think) that this film is fundamentally flawed at a conceptual level. In fact, I don’t think that anyone could make a decent film out of this particular set of ideas.

Set predominantly on a flight from Spain to Mexico, the film follows the crew and first class passengers as they desperately try to keep their minds off the fact that their plane’s landing gear is stuck and they will soon be making an emergency landing. The cabin crew are an engaging bunch of booze and pill-chugging reprobates while the passengers are a bunch of wealthy people with secrets including a professional dominatrix, a virgin psychic who reads the future by groping men’s groins and an actor with an emotionally unstable girlfriend. Camp as general synod, the crew flirt outrageously, talk about their overly-complicated lovelives and drug the passengers in an effort to help them open up emotionally and sexually. There are many double entendres and a dance number. It’s not very funny. In fact… it’s more than a little bit embarrassing despite the predictably wonderful art direction and design.

I’m So Excited is beautifully designed and effortlessly directed but without any real ideas to explore or an appropriately funny script, the film drags terribly from one largely unfunny and unsubstantial set piece to the next. Even worse, Almodovar struggles to control the tone of his own film meaning that campy slapstick and raunchy dialogue unpredictably collapse into (admittedly well-realised) inserts about an actor getting back together with his ex-girlfriend when his current girlfriend is committed for attempting suicide. These wild changes of tone and focus not only rob the film of any sense of comedic momentum, they also draw attention to the weakness of the writing and the lack of care and attention that went into deciding what to keep and what to cut prior to release. Why bother including an insert about an actor’s love life when the results are neither funny nor related to anything else in the film? The most logical answer is that it amused the director to include it and that is the living definition of creative self-indulgence.

My initial scepticism about I’m So Excited! is derived from three different areas:

Firstly, if you make a comedy about a plane flight then you are inviting comparisons with Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Zucker’s Airplane! one of the most enduring and influential comedy films of the thirty five years. If your film is not at least as funny as Airplane! or Airplane 2 then chances are that your film will disappoint. Making a comedy set on a plane is as short-sighted and arrogant as writing a sitcom set in a Torquay hotel. Why invite that comparison?

Secondly, the publicity for this film emphasised both the campiness of the comedy and the fact that it featured a (not particularly funny or well executed) dance routine. This immediately put me in mind of Britain’s entry into the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. If the idea of camp and raunchy air cabin crew can’t sustain a 3-minute pop song, why would it support a 90-minute film?

Thirdly, I think the sexual politics of this type of comedy are completely out of step with the times. Back in the early 1970s, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft began production of a situation comedy with a very similar comedic aesthetic. Set in a department store and called Are You Being Served?, the sitcom was heavy on the double-entendres and featured a career-defining performance by John Inman as the magnificently camp Mr Humphyrs. The series’ most famous running joke involved Molly Sugden’s aging shop assistant Mrs Slocombe making frequent allusions to the state of her ‘pussy’. One of the reasons why Are You Being Served? seems out of date is that the series uses double-entendres as a way of ‘innocently’ alluding to taboo topics such as the sex-lives of gay men and the genitals of elderly shop assistants. However, as time has moved on and social mores have shifted, the idea of older women having sex lives is no longer taboo and so Molly Sugden complaining about having to thaw out her pussy now seems more like TMI than LOL. I would argue that something very similar has happened regarding the depiction of GLBT people in popular culture. Back in the 1970s, gay people were expected to be invisible and so a flamboyantly camp man making allusions to his sex life was so transgressive that people reacted to Mr Humphyrs as though they were in on some sort of elaborate joke at the BBC’s expense. However, forty years later and openly gay men are now fairly common in TV and film and so there’s no reason to react to anything they say as some sort of transgressive utterance that has been secreted past the men upstairs. As I ask in my review, what is so funny about a male pilot having sex with one of the male cabin crew? what is so funny about an ostensibly straight man exploring his own sexuality by sucking a cock? There is nothing inherently funny about the idea of two men having sex so why are we expected to laugh? Camp was a part of many gay lives for a very long time but that time has now passed… I could understand a nostalgic exploration of a time when gay men were obliged to hide in plain sight by camping it up but playing that campness for laughs now? in the 21st Century? Doesn’t work. The times they have-a-changed.

Game On (1995) – Comedy, Madness and the Irony of Postmodern Prejudice

There is something wonderfully sad and ephemeral about comedy. Consider, for example, the situation comedy and film franchise Sex and the City (1998). When Sex and the City arrived on TV screens, it reached out to a wide audience by challenging established attitudes towards sex and gender. Indeed, when Sex and the City first started, women (though sexually liberated) were expected to be less interested in sex than men. However, by the time Sex and the City graduated to cinema screens, cultural attitudes had moved on and it was now accepted that women could be just as crass and emotionally stunted as men. Thus, what began life as a critique of traditional values ended its life as a chest-thumping celebration of the status quo. The history of comedy is littered with examples of films and series that simply ran out of cultural currency as the attitudes they critiqued or embodied came to seem either more or less oppressive.

An excellent example of a series left culturally isolated by changing social attitudes is Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis’s Game On.

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The Panic Tone – Polanski and Topor’s The Tenant (1976)

In my piece on Polanski’s Repulsion (1968), I highlighted the homage paid by Polanski to the generation of Surrealist filmmakers who came before him.  In this piece, I want to examine the similarities in tone between another of Polanski’s films and the branch of French Surrealism that provided the source material for one of Polanski’s best known films, The Tenant (1976).

By 1960, the vultures had started to circle the Surrealist movement.  What had started out as a desire to destroy and rebuild the iconography of Western Art in the aftermath of the First World War now seemed like a circular and pointless endeavour through which one section of the bourgeoisie tried to shock and outrage another section of the same narrow social institution.  While members of the Generation of ‘27 burned with anger at the Franquist government which had exiled and jailed them, the alliances with Marxism that would impact film-makers such as Bunuel were still a way off.  Facing such creative stagnation, Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor came together to form Burlesque, a creative clique which would later inspire itself from the god Pan and name themselves the Panic Movement.

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