Tag Archives: Comedy

324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”–attributed to W.C. Fields

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edward F. Cline

FEATURING: , Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, , Susan Miller, Leon Errol

PLOT: W.C. Fields (playing himself) is pitching a new screenplay to Esoteric Pictures, while serving as temporary guardian to his niece, an up-and-coming actress. He describes his story—which begins with him falling out of an airplane and landing in a secluded mountaintop garden where he finds a beautiful virgin and her wealthy mother, and just gets stranger—to an increasingly skeptical producer. After the producer passes on the script, Fields and his niece leave the business, and he ends up rushing a woman to a maternity hospital.

Still from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was W.C. Fields’ final featured role. Both his health and his performances were suffering due to his alcoholism. In addition, Fields had long argued with Universal Studio executives, seeking more creative control over his projects. They finally granted his wishes in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Just like the producer within the film, they hated the result. Universal gave Sucker little promotion and decided not to renew Fields’ contract. He made a handful of smaller appearances in movies until 1944, then died on Christmas day in 1946 at the age of 66.
  • Fields didn’t write the screenplay, but is credited for the “original story” under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis.
  • The title is taken from a line of dialogue from Fields’ play (later movie) Poppy, where he played a con man. Universal rejected his proposed title for the movie, The Great Man. Fields is listed as “the Great Man” in the credits.
  • The Hays office rejected Fields’ original script, objecting to  “jocular references to drinking and liquor,” the word “pansy,” scenes of Fields ogling women, and suggestive shots of bananas. A scene in a saloon was absurdly revised to take place in an ice cream parlor, which gave Fields an opportunity to make a jokes at the censors’ expense.
  • Despite promising Fields creative control, Universal reportedly re-cut the film and even reshot scenes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fields’ free-fall when he jumps off the airplane’s open observation deck (!) after accidentally knocking over his bottle of whiskey.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plummeting drunkard; fanged dog; pet mountain gorilla

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Considered in isolation, the middle section of Sucker—Fields’ fevered film-within-the-film—is as strange a comedy short as was ever greenlit by Hollywood in the studio system era. Interference from censors, both in the Hayes office and Universal boardrooms, resulted in the already stream-of-consciousness script being further chopped up into something that approached incoherence. Sucker was Fields’ “screw you” to the suits, a poison pill of bitter satire dissolved in a pint of gin, served on the rocks with a twist of absurdity. By a man in a gorilla suit.


Fan-made trailer for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

COMMENTS: In the early days of Hollywood, comedians established a persona and stuck to it, essentially playing the same character in movie after movie. While most comics adopted sympathetic Continue reading 324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

LIST CANDIDATE: AVIDA (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Benoît Delépine, Gustave de Kervern

FEATURING: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, Eric Martin, Velvet

PLOT: A simpleton stumbles into a job at a zoo and is conscripted into a heist involving the theft of a dog; through a mishap, the thieves end up leading the pet’s owner up the side of a mountain so that she may die there.

Still from Avida (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Avida is deliberately surreal, piling offbeat scenarios on top of mysterious images until they constitute a puzzle to be solved. Ironically, the film’s final image suggests a level of logic that is almost too sensible for all that has preceded it.

COMMENTS: Avida sets up a theme right from the get-go, as a picador psyches himself to go into the ring against a formidable opponent. Once his foe is revealed to be a rhinoceros, we get our first taste of the film’s surreal view of the battle between man and animal. From there, we meet our mute hero working as a dog trainer whose job seems to be primarily a target for the animals’ aggression. But when he is too distracted to help his employer in a moment of need, he finds himself adrift in the world. It’s like Being There, but with more barking.

Our theme quickly gives way to a picaresque journey in which the nameless protagonist reveals that he has no idea how to get on in the world. He attacks a golfer for his shoes, pushes down a woman to take her wristwatch (she seems disappointed that his intentions are not more lascivious), and raids a fancy restaurant to steal some lobsters. His visit to a ian job fair lands him at a zoo, where a new array of characters and settings emerges.

The film has the feel of a sketch show, with scenes careening from one to the other. Two men shooting each other with pellet guns give way to a restaurant where the zoo’s animals are on the menu. There’s a plot, but only just enough, and characters who are only germane insofar as their names give them purpose: the Distracted Nanny, the Benevolent Singer, the Man With the Head of Scotch Tape. Avida doesn’t think about these people for too long, and neither should you.

In its first half, Avida is frequently funny, with choices that amuse through surprise. The filmmakers clearly subscribe to the view that anything seen long enough will become amusing in time, as when a bodyguard who has failed to stop the dognapping calmly reaches into an unexpectedly deep arsenal to take aim at the perpetrators. Eventually, though, we meet up with the title character (the only one given a name) who demands that the Mute and his colleagues deliver to her death in a barren wasteland filled with mirrors and armoires, and the humor gives way to a look at humanity’s more pathetic traits.

What Avida is ultimately about is unclear and up for debate. The final image, and the only one in color, is a Dali-esque painting that seems to suggest that everything we have seen is the reasonable explanation for such an artwork, or perhaps that all Surrealist images have their origin in the kind of hijinks that have unfolded before us. The message is further muddied with an epigram from the Native American leader Chief Seattle that cautions against carelessness toward our animal friends—hearkening back to the early theme, but also reminding us that it hasn’t been relevant to the film for quite some time. Avida is idiosyncratic to a fault, and that fault seems to be a lack of trust. The movie bends over backwards to justify its quirks, rather than just letting them be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere between Monty Python, Jacques Tati and a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons, this critique of life’s cruel inconsistency confirms the French co-directors’ gift for reinterpreting surrealism in a humorously modern key. Though their often disgusting imagery may alienate the squeamish and send fans of conventional comedy running for the exit, pic’s very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.” – Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Donya, who deemed it “an intelligent beautiful poetic ‘weird” movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

322. THE FALLS (1980)

Recommended

“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway

DIRECTED BY:

NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys

PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.

Still from The Falls (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
  • Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
  • Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
  • At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
  • While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
  • An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.


Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls

COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway Continue reading 322. THE FALLS (1980)

CAPSULE: SKELETONS (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Whitfield

FEATURING: Ed Gaughan, Andrew Buckley, Tuppence Middleton, Paprika Steen, Jason Isaacs

PLOT: Two psychic investigators—memory extractors who literally find “skeletons in the closet”—investigate a missing person case at the request of an eccentric family.

Still from Skeletons (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Skeletons is sort of a whimsical corporate memory scenario, with a dash of humor, on an obvious low budget. Its ambition makes you want to root for it, but the end result is so minor that it ultimately doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

COMMENTS: Naturally gifted but troubled Davis and big-boned Bennett, the more stable of the team, are a pair of—psychic exorcists? Through a combination of technology and mental gymnastics, they are able to enter into people’s memories (entering via their home closets) and discover their secrets. The rules to this procedure are never clearly laid out. We stumble upon certain concepts in the course of the investigation, which is generally a good way to introduce information while keeping up the suspense, but here the technique is sometimes clumsy. (Why the necessity to build a “bypass” around the family’s homestead after the “triangulation fails,” except to buy the script more time to explore a parallel plot development?) At other times, the procedure’s dodgy mechanics lead to amusingly absurd results: “glow chase” too often, and you might end up “going Bulgarian.” One of the strangest things about the premise, which was never explained to my satisfaction, is who exactly the market is for these services. It appears to be couples who are afraid to tell each other their deepest secrets and require professional interventions, New Age dilettantes, and skeptics who end up embarrassed by the revelations; not much of a customer base, in my opinion. Although it’s presented as an unusual assignment, the idea of the two being sent on a missing persons case makes more sense—perhaps their objective perspective will allow them to find a clue in someone’s memory that person would miss. In fact, the movie might work best as the pilot episode for a weekly psychic mystery series that never happened.

Gaughan and Butler, veterans of British television, show good comic timing and chemistry. Each shows a mixture of loyalty to, and exasperation with, the other that makes their long-term partnership believable. They spend their long walks (for budgetary reasons, I guess, no one in their organization owns a car) discussing whether Rasputin was morally admirable. Bennet is concerned about Gaughan’s lifestyle and covers for him, but that doesn’t stop the pair from bickering on the job. The supporting characters do their jobs well: Paprika Steen as the quirky possible widow/potential love interest, Jason Isaacs as the bullying boss. The oddly-named Tuppence Middleton is the weakest link, if only because her suspiciously mute character often plays like more of a plot device than an organic presence. The comedy works, at least in spurts, at its funniest when Gaughan reads off his bureaucratic checklist (“have you ever seen a bear?”) and makes sure clients dot their i’s when signing forms (“yeah, but can you verbally confirm it?”) All in all, Skeletons is an amiable, reasonably witty indie that can’t quite figure out how to efficiently get its multitude of ideas across to the audience, resulting in a near-miss at cult status.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an intriguing, well-acted, quietly funny film that, though it is outright weird most of the time and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, has a quirky charm and emotional heart all its own.”–Owen Van Spall, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “D-2.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

AKA The Big Crimewave

“I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead.”–John Paizs

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Paizs

FEATURING: Eva Kovacs, John Paizs, Neil Lawrie

PLOT: A young girl named Kim observes a moody boarder named Steven who has moved into the room above her parents’ garage as he attempts to write the world’s greatest “color crime movie.” As he despairs from writer’s block, she elicits the help of a Doctor C. Jolly from an ad in a trade magazine. However, the good doctor is not quite the savior Steven sets out to find.

Still from Crime Wave (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Initially, filming took place only on weekends, as John Paizs was working for the City of Winnipeg as a traffic clerk at the time. A glimpse of his day job can be seen in Crime Wave when Kim and Steve go out on an errand during the costume party.
  • Paizs’ style evolved from the director’s technical limitations, his earlier short film efforts being shot on old equipment without any microphones. He developed a taste for narration, as it allowed him to jump around scenes without confusing the audience. (Paizs’ early short films are currently unavailable).
  • The “above the garage” character came from a previous script concerning a young man pursuing an 18-year-old girl who regresses back to 13-year-old behavior. Unhappy with the story, Paizs transplanted the character to Crime Wave, making the female lead an actual 13-year-old and knocking out the romance angle.
  • Paizs based the staccato pacing of the “beginnings and endings” on trailers for 1950s crime movies.
  • Paizs signed a distribution deal with a company who promptly ignored the film. It received no theatrical release outside of Winnipeg, and years later was dumped on VHS (retitled The Big Crime Wave to avoid confusion with Sam Raimi‘s Crimewave) without much in the way of promotion.
  • Although Paizs’ post-Crime Wave career has been slight, some might have seen his work directing segments of “The Kids in the Hall” (such as the “Mr. Heavyfoot” character). After seeing Crime Wave, the troupe’s Bruce McCulloch recruited Paizs to film standalone short segments in a similarly whimsical-surreal style.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our narrator, Kim, often observes our hero, Steve, as he stands or sits brooding by the window above her parents’ garage. This recurring image telegraphs that something is about to change for the protagonist, while giving Crime Wave a silent movie feel. Indeed, Steve’s movements, tics, and expressions (or lack thereof) summon nothing less than a latter-day .

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent protagonist; streetlight head; “The Top!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Veering between self-aware amateurism and downright surreal amateurism, John Paizs’ feature debut keeps the viewer on his back foot in an unlikely, charming way. Partially dressed as a documentary, with narration provided by a young girl, Crime Wave shows the hell of writer’s block, interspersed with clips of the breathless beginnings and endings (never middles) of the writer’s output. Its hokey upbeat tone wryly slaps you in the face, while in the background strange and occasionally sinister asides undercut the atmosphere.


Clip from Crime Wave

COMMENTS: John Paizs’ Crime Wave defies most descriptions and Continue reading 314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

CAPSULE: CRIMEWAVE (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reed Birney, Sheree Wilson, , Brion James,

PLOT: Minutes from his execution, an innocent security-systems installer attempts to dissuade his guards from prematurely ending his life, telling a tale of mistaken identity, love, psychotic exterminators, and bad pick-up lines.

Still from Crimewave (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the prospect of an early cooperative effort between Sam Raimi and the made me hopeful, and while the creative does outweigh the crummy, Crimewave falls awkwardly on the “just a little too good” side of the weird movie equation. As it happens, it would have taken just a smidgen more amateurism (or a whole lot more inspiration) to have this be a Certified The-Man-Who-Wasn’t-There-meets-“Looney-Tunes” kind of a thing.

COMMENTSCrimewave was originally titled Relentless. On the DVD release it bears the title The X, Y, Z Murders. The distributors obviously weren’t sure how to handle it and, to an extent, neither am I. Made at the beginning of both Sam Raimi’s and the Coen brothers’ careers, you can see that they aren’t yet sure of themselves. All their trademarks are there—fast and novel pacing (Raimi), cleverly obtuse dialogue (Coens)—but they are still finding their feet artistically. Both the director and the screenwriters would, thankfully, move on to bigger and better, but with Crimewave we are left with an intermittently charming mess of a movie.

The action begins in Hudsucker Penitentiary, where a frantic Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) urgently rambles to his guards shortly before his scheduled execution at midnight. The tale he tells would sound familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Coen brothers’ more playful films. Victor claims he did not kill his two bosses (along with some bystanders), but that they were instead offed by the unhinged exterminators Faron Crush (Paul Smith) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James): two sleazebags I referred to as “Rat-Rat” and “Fat-Rat” in my notes. Mayhem ensues inside an apartment building that conveniently houses all the protagonists, with a couple of key scenes taking place in a nearby upscale restaurant where Victor awkwardly attempts to woo femme fatale Nancy (Sheree Wilson), a woman of the world who is in the clutches of the ultimate heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell). Hopefully, the car full of nuns will arrive in time to save our hero.

While the first half consists of oddball dialogue and strange zingers, the second half goes a bit off the rails with Warner Brothers-style violence. Crimewave‘s greatest fault is that it seems it knows what to do; it just doesn’t do it terribly well. Perhaps Sam Raimi felt too tethered being under the watchful eye of corporate Hollywood for the first time, and the combined effects of a constrained Raimi and novice Coens makes for something much more “odd” than “weird.” While the overall effect of the collaboration makes for a breathlessly tedious experience, Raimi’s frenetic pacing does occasionally complement the Coen brothers’ rudimentarily clever dialogue. While laboring through the second half (with the psychos, the car chase, and all that), it was as if I were with a boring guest at a party whom I just wanted to abandon, only to have him suddenly turn charming as I was about to leave.

All told, and despite the preceding paragraphs, I feel somewhat at a loss for words. It’s always great to see Bruce Campbell as a scumbag, and a lot of the other characters populating the small city block would evolve into the lovable idiots that would be the backbone of the Coen brothers’ classic comedies to come. However, the shining moments served more immediately as a reminder that the surrounding movie was a rushed, troubled, slapdash affair. Now that  both Raimi and the Coens have become great filmmakers, I would be interested in seeing them remake this (fairly justifiably) forgotten romp. As it stands now, though, while I cannot recommend it to anyone, I would recommend having had seen it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange but not funny spoof of hitmen that disappoints because the comedy is too simplistic and there’s no dramatic impact.”–Dennis Schwartz, Orzus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: LEMON (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Janicza Bravo

FEATURING: Brett Gelman, , Nia Long, , Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs

PLOT: A struggling, middle-aged actor/director loses his long-time girlfriend.

Still from Lemon (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lemon is an awkward formalist comedy that’s just weird enough to hold your interest, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot.

COMMENTS: Not much happens in Lemon, a low-key, lightly absurdist comedy (flirting with anti-comedy) that positions itself as a character study of a delusional, narcissistic type working on the margins of the acting profession. Brett Gelman (who also co-wrote) plays sad sack Isaac with so little expression, he makes  actors look like hams. Isaac has a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), but things are going about as well with her as they are with his stalled career. The schlub shamelessly but unconsciously projects his personal life onto the acting courses he’s teaching, where he continually sides with a pretentious actor (Michael Cera, who prepares for scenes by “exploring” colors and animals) while picking on an unassuming actress (poor Gillian Jacobs). (In one of Lemon‘s wry meta-jokes, the editor cuts off her scenes in mid-sentence, the same way that Isaac disregards her attempts to speak to him). Once outside of his petty teaching kingdom, he finds himself judged by two female casting directors who treat him like a piece of meat, but still lands an unflattering role in a commercial campaign. While on that set, he meets an African-American makeup artist (Nia Long) whom he will eventually romance, setting up the film’s only conventional comic situation when Isaac displays clueless racial insensitivity when he attends her Jamaican family’s barbecue. And that’s pretty much it; by the time the credits roll, Isaac has learned nothing and experienced no personal growth, ending up slightly worse off than when he started.

Lemon comes across as much weirder than that synopsis suggests. All of the scenes are “off” to some degree, some more than others. Isaac has his own avant-minimalist music, sometimes with operatic accompaniment, that follows him around. At one point, a man who looks like his approximate double simply walks into the class and sits beside him, saying nothing; it’s never explained. At least one flashback is played out live, without an edit, with the absent character simply walking into the room after the others depart. There is a very strange masturbation scene that seems inspired by James Lipton’s old “Actors Studio” interviews. And a sprightly singalong at a family reunion (“A Million Matzo Balls,” led by patriarchs Rhea Perlman and A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed on piano) is an out-of-place highlight.

Lemon is reminiscent of something might write in a very depressed mood. With its nearly inscrutable, yet mean, antihero, the autistic social interactions, and the jarring transitions from scene to scene, the tone rests just this side of a nightmare. It’s a movie that will have some interest to fans of uncomfortable comedy, but it’s hard to love. If nothing else, however, Lemon is notable for bringing us Michael Cera’s worst onscreen haircut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more tart than sweet, but deliciously weird nonetheless.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)