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Staff Picks Category: Comedy

Ball of Fire by Howard Hawks []

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In this delightful romantic comedy Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight professors who have lived together for years, devoting their time to the production of a new encyclopedia. When a trash collector asks the professors for help answering questions for a trivia contestd Bertram is baffled by the garbageman’s language and realizes his article on American on slang is badly out of date. In order to correct this he must leave his reference books behind in order to do some research in the field.

Bertram’s field research brings him in contact with Sugarpuss O’Shea, a witty and jocular nightclub performer portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Sugarpuss has no interest in helping Bertram with his research until her mob-boss boyfriend gets in trouble and she needs a place to hide from the police. What better place to hide than among these quiet and respectable professors?

Having taken refuge with the encyclopedists, Sugarpuss delights in teasing the stodgy Bertram and soon makes friends with the other professors (who, unlike Bertram, enjoy her company from the beginning). Bertram, however, worries that her presence will interfere with progress on the encyclopedia. “Now, when the Foundation launched our vessel”, he proclaims, “it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail.” Sugarpuss recognizes this as nonsense, but can’t risk a fight under the circumstances. Still, it is with evident sarcasm that she offers “to sit on her legs”.

Bertram almost redeems himself when he replies, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind”. However, he continues with, “unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”, a statement which comes across as almost redeeming—Bertram wasn’t concerned for the sake of the other professors, but for himself. Fate will, however, keep Sugarpuss and the professor together, and despite flying wisecracks and bullets (remember the mob-boss boyfriend?) they soon grow to enjoy each other’s company.

Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss is refreshingly strong, independent, and easily the most complex character in the film. Gary Cooper’s Bertram is understated and reserved. Many of the characters come across as cartoonish, which is just what you want from the supporting characters in a screwball comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty and, of course, full of period slang, familiar and not.

By the way, Ball of FIre would later be remade as the musical A Song is Born starring Danny Kaye. The dialogue in the two films is in large parts identical, despite the different scenario and very different portrayals. Folks who have seen A Song is Born will be relieved to know that in Ball of Fire the dialogue actually makes sense!

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The Last Days of Disco by Whit Stillman []

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Whit Stillman’s third feature, The Last Days of Disco, is set in New York City the early 1980’s. Here we find a group of young professionals who are all, whether they are aware or not, in a period of transition. This moment of change also mirrors the current stage of the popular music (please see the title!).

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), somewhat recent graduates of Hampshire College, are working in the lower echelons of the publishing industry. Despite having not much in common (and they can readily admit that they may not be ideal candidates for friendship), the duo decides to share a railroad style apartment with another young woman.

The tight living quarters teamed with Charlotte’s persistent insensitivity create a great deal of tension and bickering. Furthermore, there’s also tussling over potential/previous love interests. An escape from this turmoil is the local hot spot; it’s a fashionable discotheque possibly modeled in Stillman’s memory from his days hanging out at the famed Studio 54. Chris Eigeman, a Stillman mainstay, is cast as Des McGrath. McGrath is a sardonic manager at the said Manhattan club and he ultimately realizes that the owner has some sort of a shady operation going on.

When viewing The Last Days of Disco, one can’t help appreciating the dedication in creating such memorable characters and the overall writing in general. The film is filled with quick and witty dialog… most of which you cannot imagine being spoken by actual people. In one instance, Eigeman’s character begs the question, “do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie,’ it’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.”

The struggle of social identity and finding one’s general placement in society underlie this brilliant comedic drama.

P.S. After a viewing, one may discover that disco does not suck!

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Last Picture Show by Peter Bogdanovich []

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In keeping with the “New Hollywood” theme, I thought we’d take a look at another Roger Corman student and another film in the Criterion Collection’s America Lost & Found series. Following his directorial debut Targets (a brilliant “Frankensteining” of Corman stock footage of Boris Karloff and a completely new script about a local assassin), Peter Bogdanovich adapted Last Picture Show with the book’s author Larry McMurthy.

The film is set in a transitional period, both for the landscape and members of the graduating high school class, in a rural north Texas town in the early 1950’s. Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shephard and Randy Quaid play the local teenagers who are thinking about their futures outside of their small home town. Relationships, the military, money and taking care of family members all play important roles on these characters’ decisions. Two adult figures, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, both won Oscars for their performances in supporting roles.

Robert Surtees’s soft black and white cinematography over the dusty roads and old shop signs hang a general feeling of loneliness over Last Picture Show. Bogdanvoich’s subtle humor, rich character drama and calculated pace, earn him comparison to the French master François Truffaut. He would also continue to look to the past, mostly filming in black and white, in years to come with films like Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc? and Nickelodeon.

In The Last Picture Show, we can feel that change will come in this part of Texas and that Red River shall inevitably have its final curtain.

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Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic []

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Marina Zenovich’s film is an excellent portrait of comedian and actor Richard Pryor. We see all the brilliance, unflinching confidence, missteps, self-destruction, triumphs and pain. Omit the Logic hits the ground running with Pryor’s earliest televised stand-up appearances with a routine resembling what Bill Cobsy was up to in the early 1960’s. However, after a disastrous set in Las Vegas, Pryor disappears and later resurfaces in San Francisco as a completely unique, uncensored entertainer.

The film highlights much of Pryor’s autobiographical material. After a fair share of belly laughing at these classic, personal routines about his childhood, relationships with women and drug use, the documentary leads us to Pryor’s difficult past. Contemporaries, colleagues and followers such as Bob Newhart, Paul Mooney, Dave Chappelle, Mel Brooks, Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg contribute anecdotes to Pryor’s perplexing story. It’s both noble and heartbreaking how Richard Pryor persisted to find humor in the darkest of places.

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Bored To Death []

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Jonathan Ames casts Jason Schwartzman as his alter-ego “Jonathan Ames” in the comedic, sleuth series Bored To Death. Ames is a young author from Brooklyn with motivational issues struggling to complete his second novel. One evening he turns to famed pulp writer Raymond Chandler for inspiration. After completing Farewell My Lovely, he proceeds to take out an advertisement on Craigslist boasting his reasonable rates and unlicensed detective services.
Each episode follows Schwartzman on madcap cases, painful romantic encounters and surprisingly tender buddy-buddy moments with brilliant co-stars Ted Danson and Zack Galifiankis. The show also features cameos appearances from John Hodgman, Patton Oswolt and Kristen Wiig.

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Paul F. Tompkins: Laboring Under Delusions []

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Paul F. Tompkins, comedian-actor-podcaster-improvisational wizard, performs a thematic stand-up set recalling his life as an employed person in Laboring Under Delusions. The long form jokes are delivered in a story setting highlighting the perils of working as a video clerk, a hat salesman (on multiple occasions, he was asked to retrieve a “king hat”) and as a minor character in the film There Will Be Blood. Tompkins is immensely charming and equally hilarious. This is very funny stuff!

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Pootie Tang by Louis C.K. []

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A case for Pootie Tang, a micro-essay.

Genius comic Louis C.K. had written a script based on a character from the Chris Rock Show and brought it to the big screen in 2001. It has been well documented that the author was extremely unhappy with the final product and the experience caused him a great deal of pain. You see, the film was snatched away in the editing stages and the cut we see now is not Louie’s vision.

This much maligned film stars Lance Crouther, Chris Rock (in several roles), J.B. Smoove and Wanda Sykes and also features several cameos (I’m not going to spoil them here). We follow the life of Pootie Tang, a hero to the people with a magical belt and an unintelligible language. Things go awry when an evil corporate villain, through a series of underhanded schemes, attempts to attach Pootie’s likeness to unhealthy fast food, malt liquor and cigarette smoking.

Despite the critical wrath and lampooning from late night talk shows, Pootie Tang still delivers plenty of laughs in its crazy, surreal music video-esque style. Though many cite the film as a “so bad it’s good” romp, I enjoyed the picture in the most genuine way possible. I found myself laughing loudly throughout and having to catch my breath.

I suppose this off the wall mockumentary was a little ahead of its time at the beginning of the 2000’s. Needless to say, fans would love to one day see Louis C.K.’s director’s cut to view the real Pootie Tang.

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California Split []

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George Segal and Elliott Gould star in California Split, my all time favorite Robert Altman film and one of the best from the 1970’s. This dark, buddy comedy is centered around Bill Denny & Charlie Waters, two men who get sucked into the world of gambling. After Bill falls deep in debt to his bookie, he sells off several possessions so he and Charlie can make an all-in trek to Reno.  They eventually find themselves in a tacky casino and in a dramatic, high stakes poker match.

Segal and Gould are the ultimate on screen duo with a perfect comedic volley and excellent chemistry. Additionally, this 1974 movie comes in when Altman was on top of his creative game. The director’s signature usage of wide range audio recording gives the picture an incredible depth and a real sense of place. The conversations from the extras and bit characters are always audible and usually rather interesting.

Ultimately, the story of California Split asks, does money really equal happiness?

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde []

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The first title in the Thursday Next series, takes us to a slightly different version of Great Britain, around 1985, where time travel is routine, and people have cloned dodo birds has pets. Thursday is a member of Special Operations 27, the literary detective division. Her father is a member of the Chronoguard, and her uncle invents all kinds of interesting devices. Thursday is involved when original manuscripts get stolen, and the story line starts changing. Jane Eyre is kidnapped and Thursday has to enter the novel to try to track down the villain before any lasting harm occurs to the storyline. A love of literature and some acquaintance with Jane Eyre suggested. Surreal and funny with wonderful characters.
Susan Duerden was an engaging reader. 10 discs, 12 hours 15 minutes

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Moonstruck []

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Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a film that’s been on cable television throughout much of my life, sitting on the shelves of various video stores and more recently, hanging out in the Forbes Library.  The box artwork featuring Cher with her outstretched arms has always rubbed me the wrong way, perhaps signalling some sort of a cheeseball factor.
Recently I read an interview with director Wes Anderson where he discussed his favorite New York films and to my surprise Moonstruck made the cut.  Jewison, who was a mentor to Hal Ashby, directs a delightful, modern day fairy tale filled with comedy, romance, beautiful and subtle camera work, brilliant character actor performances and just the right amount of nostalgia.  Also standing out is the pitch-perfect dialog.  John Patrick Shanley (other credits include Joe Vs. the Volcano and Doubt) creates a somewhat realistic family unit that is forever bickering with one another.
The story: Loretta (Cher), who has recently agreed to marry Johnny (Danny Aielo), is asked to track down her fiance’s estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) and invite him to their upcoming wedding.  While Johnny is in Italy tending to his ailing mother, Loretta and Ronny wind up having an intense love affair.  Chaos ensues!!!  We also have Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney in memorable supporting roles.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover… and I think I’m now learning that you also shouldn’t judge a film by it’s DVD or VHS artwork!

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The Trip by Michael Winterbottom []

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This feature mockumentary, edited down from a BBC television series, stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerations of themselves in the entertaining fictional road movie, The Trip.  The two colleagues continue their antagonistic relationship that began on the screen with Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story.  Coogan initially asks Mischa, his American girlfriend, to accompany him on an assignment where he’ll be writing a magazine piece covering restaurants and quaint inns in the northern English countryside.  We soon learn the actor’s relationship is in trouble and he reluctantly calls on comedian Rob Brydon to join him.
What follows is a one upmanship contest of mythic proportions.  The two bicker over their careers, public perception, height and general approach toward life.  In the car and at various breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner tables they battle it out with celebrity impersonations, vocal range and improvisational wars.  The comedic competition is never ending, but never ceases to be funny.  Contrasting the humor is Coogan’s desperation in private moments.  Cell phone conversations (with a weak signal) to Mischa, his ex-wife, son and agent reveal the actor’s lonelier side and his frustration dealing with aging.

The uncredited supporting role of this film are the beautiful hills and mountains and the elaborate dishes Rob and Steve are served.  Most importantly however, the friendship seen on screen, though obscured by Coogan’s condescension and bitterness, is rather touching at times.  Despite his best efforts to isolate himself, this is possibly a story about meaningful human relationships.

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Old Jews Telling Jokes by Sam Hoffman ; with Eric Spiegelman []

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This project started as a website, still going strong at oldjewstellingjokes.com. A couple of guys and their dads started rounding up all their “aunts and uncles, wise-cracking attorneys and periodontists,” as the web site says. Each clip is a couple of minutes of one person telling a joke. These are not professional comedians, they are ordinary people from the culture that created the Marx Brothers, the Catskill circuit, and Mel Brooks. Some of the stories have been around a long time, but nearly all of them land between amusing and hilarious on the laugh-o-meter. You’ll find ironic, raunchy, and self-deprecating bits as well as some marvelous timing and delivery. The narrator I could do without. Still, it beats therapy.

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