19 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 56 | March 19, 2010

Humour Me


Our theme this week
(theme introduction)

British comedies from the 1960s to today

Featured this week
Monday         —   Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Tuesday         —   Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Wednesday    —   A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Thursday        —   Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

In the Loop (2009)

in the loop
Three questions, three answers

The Americans want a war in the Middle East.  The British are determined not to get in the way.  This sounds familiar.  Is it a political satire or a documentary?

A satire, and a blistering one, but it does have the feel of a behind-the-scenes look at a story in the headlines.  Both the Brits and Americans are thoroughly skewered, and with the primary focus on British bureaucrats and politicians, they get the worst of it.  There’s Simon (Tom Hollander), a mid-level minister, who fumbles an interview when he says what he thinks, that war is “unforeseeable.”  That’s enough to set off an international crisis, and Malcolm, a vile and vicious government spokesman, seeks to control the damage.  A few characters want to avoid war, including an American general played by James Gandolfini.  They try to get Simon to speak out, but he’s reluctant to say anything that won’t help his career.

Peter Capaldi plays Malcom Tucker, the foul-mouthed British communications director.  David Rasche plays Linton Barwick, the glib U.S. assistant secretary of state.  Who’s scarier, and who’s funnier?

Malcolm is the bigger role, driving the action from the beginning to the end, and he’s there to humiliate Simon and every other Brit who steps out of line.  Capaldi gives a great performance, and there are few things as sweet as the sheer vitriol that comes from his mouth faster than you can laugh at it.  Linton Barwick is another matter.  He’s a smug, condesending liar, and Rasche gives it a comic turn that’s clearly channeling the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld.  Malcolm is a very funny creation and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him, but there’s something especially scary about Barwick because he has the power and you know no one can stop him.

The British once were known for their talent for understatement.  Here and in the other films this week you see over-the-top caricatures and heavy doses of profanity.  Has something changed?

It seems so.

Three more from the 2000s

  • Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • In Bruges (2008)
  • Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

In the Loop (2009)
Armando Iannucci, director
Trailer


In the Loop (2009)
Peter Capaldi (Malcolm Tucker), Tom Hollander (Simon Foster), Gina McKee (Judy Molloy), Chris Addison (Toby Wright)


Quote of Note
“In accordance to the principles of Doublethink, it does not matter if the war is not real, or when it is, that victory is not possible.  The war is not meant to be won.  It is meant to be continuous.  The essential act of modern warfare is the destruction of the produce of human labor.  A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation.  The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects.  And its object is not victory over Eurasia or Eastasia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.”
—Winston Smith (John Hurt), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 19 Mar 2010 @ 06:59 AM

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 18 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 55 | March 18, 2010

Humour Me


Our theme this week (theme introduction)
British comedies from the 1960s to today

Featured this week
Monday         —   Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Tuesday         —   Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Wednesday    —   A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

four weddings and a funeral
Three questions, three answers

This one’s a romantic comedy, with lots of weddings, as they tell you right in the title, and a happy ending.  It’s hardly as subversive as some of the other films this week, wouldn’t you say?

I’m not so sure about that.  You’d hardly call the film a ringing endorsement of marriage.  The first wedding is a bit of a drunken, desperate affair, highlighted by Charlie’s highly irreverent toast, wittily delivered by Hugh Grant.  The second is one long joke, and a funny one until Charlie meets Carrie’s fiancé.  The third, Carrie’s, doesn’t last.  The fourth, Charlie’s, is done in desperation.  If there’s one ceremony that the filmmakers treat with any seriousness it’s Gareth’s funeral.  There’s more affection expressed at the graveside (by Gareth’s gay lover, no less) than at all the altars put together.  Many romantic comedies end with the wedding of the two stars, implicitly making the point that’s why people fall in love.  Four Weddings and a Funeral plays against that idea, which is one reason why it works.

Again there is the American interloper in the midst of a bevy of Brits.  What about that?

That seems to be a recurrent theme.  Maybe the Brits don’t know what to do without us.  Maybe we’re good comic foils.  Maybe they do it for business reasons.  Andie MacDowell gets the call this time, playing Carrie, the American beauty who catches Charlie’s eye and captures his heart.  She never really seems anything more than an outsider, though, while the Brits alone are in on all the fun.  Maybe it’s MacDowell’s performance, maybe it’s the writing, but I suppose it’s to the film’s credit that it still succeeds as a comedy and as a romance when it seems to have gotten one fundamental point wrong.  The movie is about Charlie’s search for love, and if you ask me, he blows it.  He ends up with the aloof Carrie and passes on his longtime admirer Fiona.  With all due respect to Andie MacDowell—he could have had Kristin Scott Thomas!  Hugh!  In the words of a famous talk-show host, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Was he just clueless?

At first, yes, but he has no excuse after the scene at Carrie’s wedding (clip below).  Fiona tells Charlie she’s been in love with the same bloke for ages, and he asks who it is.  “You, Charlie.  It’s always been you.”  I think of it as her “I coulda been a contenda” speech.  You remember On the Waterfront:  “It wasn’t him, Charley.  It was you.”  (Or for a rather different take, Raging Bull.)  Charlie, lucky for him, doesn’t end up on a meat hook but with a kiss in the rain.  Fiona’s future is a spot beside Prince Charles—it’s not a happy ending for everybody.

Three more from the 1990s

  • Brassed Off (1996)
  • The Full Monty (1997)
  • Waking Ned Devine (1998)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Mike Newell, director
Wedding Two:  Rowan Atkinson (Father Gerald), David Haig (Bernard), Sophie Thompson (Lydia)

 


Four Weddings and a Funeral
Hugh Grant (Charlie), Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona)


Four Weddings and a Funeral
Hugh Grant (Charlie), Andie MacDowell (Carrie)


W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”


One of the Greats
Peter Cook was an influential figure in British comedy.  He gained prominence as a member of the satiric show Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, and he worked for decades on the British stage, on television, and in movies.  His film work includes The Wrong Box (1966), Bedazzled (1967), The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), and The Princess Bride (1987).  In a poll conducted by Channel 4 in the U.K. in 2005, ten years after his death, Cook ranked at the top among comedians’ comedians—the funniest person of the English-speaking world.

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 15 Mar 2010 @ 03:19 PM

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 17 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 54 | March 17, 2010

Humour Me


Our theme this week (theme introduction)
British comedies from the 1960s to today

Featured this week
Monday         —   Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Tuesday         —   Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

a fish called wanda
Three questions, three answers

You have both Brits and Americans in this film.  Besides its London setting, how can you tell this is a British film?

The Otto character, the philosophy-reading, paranoid psychopath played by Kevin Kline.  You don’t have to wonder long to know makes him the way he is.  He’s American.  Otto is the butt of the joke who’s so stupid that he doesn’t even know there was a joke to begin with.  He could be an utterly loathsome character, but his saving grace is that he’s (unwittingly) funny as hell.  Kline gives a great performance, and may have had the last laugh, winning an Oscar for his portrayal.  The Brits responsible for Otto are writer-director Charles Crichton, of Ealing comedy fame, and co-writer John Cleese.  They have stacked the deck, unfairly but to great effect.  Their other American creation, Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is no bright bulb herself, but she is, on the other hand, utterly charming and likable.  She also has the great benefit of looking like Jamie Lee Curtis.

If the American come off so badly, then the Brits must really shine, right?

Wrong.  The Brits include a double-crossing gangster, a stuttering would-be assassin, a milquetoast barrister, and a supporting cast without a single sympathetic role among them.  But they’re all funny, in their own way, and very British, each of them.  They get what they deserve, more or less, but the film belongs to Cleese’s barrister (Archie Leach, in a nod to Cary Grant) and Wanda, who in the midst of a heist movie-turned-comedy have time for a love affair.

Anything else to say?
There’s this quotation from Charles Crichton worth noting:  “People think that if you’re directing comedy, you’ve got to be funny.  On the contrary, you’ve got to be serious.”  Play it straight and let the audience find what’s funny.  It does work better that way.

Three more from the 1980s

  • Gregory’s Girl (1981)
  • Brazil (1985)
  • Withnail and I (1986)

Meryl Streep John Cleese Introduces A Fish Called Wanda

 

“It is—and I think this is a very fair claim—a really mean film.  It’s about greed, lust, envy, hatred, murder, betrayal, paranoia, sanddabs—it has all the elements of comedy—and above all, I’m proud to say, it has masses of violence.”
—John Cleese


A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Charles Crichton, director
Trailer


A Fish Called Wanda
John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershwitz), Kevin Kline (Otto), Michael Palin (Ken Pile)


Quote of Note
Sugar:  I come from this musical family.  My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.
Joe:  Where did he conduct?
Sugar:  On the Baltimore and Ohio.
—Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), Joe (Tony Curtis), Some Like It Hot (1959)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 17 Mar 2010 @ 07:46 AM

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 16 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 53 | March 16, 2010

Humour Me


Our theme this week (theme introduction)
British comedies from the 1960s to today

Featured this week
Monday         —   Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

monty python and the holy grail
Three questions, three answers

The Brits tend to rank Life of Brian as the best of Monty Python.  Why go with Holy Grail?

I’d say it’s a close call.  Life of Brian is wicked in its own way but Holy Grail seems to me a cut above.  That may be because I first saw it at a time, in my teens, when its whole subversive message was rather appealing, and it stayed with me.  It probably has more funny bits than other Python films—from the opening credit sequence, to the Black Knight encounter, to the “Bring out your dead” scene, to the Knights Who Say Ni, to the Killer Rabbit, to the end.  But after seeing it again recently, I’d say the thing that makes this the most inspired of the bunch is the performance of Graham Chapman as King Arthur.  Chapman plays the role with a conviction that’s not only funny but touching.  He never blinks.  He never once doubts the rightness of his quest.  He carries the story relentlessly forward and you almost feel for him when the action stops for a laugh.

The movie is rather crudely made, even for its time, yet it still was a hit.  What does that say?

You don’t need money to be funny.  Money may even get in the way.  Holy Grail was such a low-budget production they couldn’t afford horses, which created a certain challenge for making a spoof based the King Arthur legend.  Instead, they banged coconut shells to simulate the sound of a galloping horse.  That was inspired—and funnier than a real horse.

Spamalot, the hit Broadway musical, was based on the Holy Grail film, but the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” wasn’t in Grail but in Life of Brian.  What’s up with that?

You’ll have to ask Eric Idle.

Last question, who’s your favorite member of the Monty Python troupe?

So sorry, your three questions are up.

Three more from the 1970s

  • The Ruling Class (1972)
  • O Lucky Man! (1973)
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
“Bring out your dead”

 
 


Monty Python and the Holy Grail
“The Black Knight”


Point of View
“Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.”
—Angela Carter

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 14 Mar 2010 @ 10:50 PM

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 15 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 52 | March 15, 2010

Humour Me

They’re not like us.  Their sense of humour wouldn’t pass a spell check.  They write funny, they speak funny, and—best of all—they make their movies funny. 

What’s funny for the British is not the same as for Hollywood.  British comedies often have a bite we don’t see this side of the Atlantic.  They take comedy seriously there.  They don’t play around.  They’d just as well paint it black.  Our palette tends to run toward the blue.  That’s not to say British comedies have more laughs.  Often there aren’t as many.  It’s funnier that way.

This week I’ll feature five comedies, each inspired, and each in its own unmistakable way from Britain.  They’ll range from political satire to romantic comedy to farce.  Let’s start in the 1960s and make a stop in each decade since.

Our theme this week
British comedies from the 1960s to today

Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

dr strangelove
Three questions, three answers
Wait a second.  Stanley Kubrick was not British.  He was born in New York and was an established name in Hollywood.  Isn’t it cheating to include his film in a list of British comedies?

True, Kubrick was born a Yank.  But he moved to England for a reason—to have the creative freedom to make films he couldn’t make in Hollywood.  His first film there was Lolita, in 1962.  He stayed for Dr. Strangelove, in part because British star Peter Sellers was legally unable to leave the country.  Kubrick remained in Britain the rest of his life.  No doubt if he had continued working in the U.S., his films would have been quite different, and some he might not have made at all.  Kubrick wasn’t born British but his career proves the point—they make films different over there.

Can you really call Dr. Strangelove a comedy?  What’s so funny about nuclear annihilation and the end of the world as we know it?  Besides, where are all the jokes?

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!  This is the War Room.”  C’mon, that’s one very funny line, among others, but it’s true,  the subject matter isn’t your everyday comedy material.  If you want to see the subject played straight, see Fail-Safe, the Sidney Lumet thriller that came out the same year.  There are no jokes in Fail-Safe.  There’s nothing funny at all.  Then you can see how inspired a comedy Dr. Strangelove is.  A black comedy like Kubrick’s works in part because of its point of view.  It takes the audience a step back so it can see the absurdity of what’s going on.  And what was going on was a world gone mad.  The film was made in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis.  Tensions were at their Cold War high.  Like death, there wasn’t a thing anybody could do about it.  So what do you do?  Tremble in fear, or laugh?  Lumet’s film offers one answer, Kubrick’s another.

Half a century later, the Cold War is over, we’re no long at the brink, we haven’t blown ourselves up.  Do you think that’s a sign that politics has advanced and that our leaders today are more enlightened?

That’s not even funny.  If they made that into a movie they’d have to call it fantasy.

Three more from the 1960s

  • Alfie (1966)
  • The Italian Job (1969)
  • Anything by Richard Lester

Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Stanley Kubrick, director
Trailer


Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Peter Sellers (President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (General ‘Buck’ Turgidson), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky)
“Mein Fuhrer!  I can walk!”


Quote of Note
“Mathematicians won the war.  Mathematicians broke the Japanese codes, and built the A-bomb.  Mathematicians like you.  The stated goal of the Soviets is global communism.  In medicine or economics, in technology or space, battle lines are being drawn.  To triumph, we need results.  Publishable, applicable results.  Now who among you will be the next Morse?  The next Einstein?  Who among you will be the vanguard of democracy, freedom, and discovery?  Today, we bequeath America’s future into your able hands.  Welcome to Princeton, gentlemen.”
—Helinger (Judd Hirsch), A Beautiful Mind (2001)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 15 Mar 2010 @ 08:24 PM

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