Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - Grady Hendrix ""

Friday, May 10, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - Grady Hendrix

Grady is a film writer (Variety, Village Voice, Film Comment) and covers a lot of obscure Netflix stuff on his blog:
He's on Twitter here:

THE BIG HIT (1998) - “What’re you guys? The Spice Boys?” China Chow sneers, and she’s pretty much right. Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Bokeem Woodbine should have stayed together as a comic quartet after turning in the Hellzapoppin’ of hitman movies all under the tender tutelage of Hong Kong’s Kirk Wong, who’d never directed a comedy before in his life. Shot in eye-searing, late 90’s pastels, and with Elliot Gould (vomitting) and Christina Applegate (kvetching) this movie proves that good taste is the enemy of art. Wahlberg plays a nice-guy hitman who takes an extracurricular job with his hapless buddies to kidnap restaurant heiress, China Chow, here playing the daughter of a millionaire who just lost his millions financing a big budget water sports movie called Taste the Golden Spray. Spiced with running jokes about the spiritual benefits of masturbation and the watchability of King Kong Lives this is the closest America has ever come to making a Hong Kong mo lei tau comedy.

Hong Kong:
LOVE ON DELIVERY (1994) - what’s mo lei tau? It’s Canto-comedy spiced with wordplay, random visual jokes, and surreal interruptions, an artform perfected by Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow, who delivers it perfectly in Love on Delivery. A little bit ramshackle, a little bit cheap, Chow plays a delivery boy whose best/worst clients are the karate studio around the corner who torment him every time he drops off an order. In love with student Lily, he vows to become karate king and gets schooled by Ng Man-tat, Chow’s grizzled, middle-aged comedy partner, here playing a kung fu conman who teaches him bogus martial arts that involve getting thrown down long flights of stairs and listening to “Funkytown.” Adapting the superhero guise of Garfield the Cat, Chow defeats bullies who are trying to rape Lily and his accidentally effective martial arts become so famous that a real karate legend shows up to curb-stomp his butt and steal Lily (which he does in a musical number during a press conference). Chow usually plays one of two types in his movies: a smart ass who knows better than everyone else, or a moron who happens to have one special skill. Love on Delivery is the best of his films, however, because he plays a loser whose special skill is being a loser. When the final fight arrives he wins not because he suddenly develops superpowers or because he believes in himself but because he cheats. From Terminator parodies, to Lily’s wall-of-heroes that includes the Alien from Alien, there are enough movie in-jokes to power an issue of MAD magazine, but the moments that I love are the pure, sparkling gems of mo lei tau like the ending when Chow’s coffee shop boss commandeers his interview after the big fight to scream into the camera, “Why is he so strong? Because he eats our bread! Inside our pineapple bread we have real pineapple! Inside our French toast we have real shit.” Say what? Who knows? And that’s why it’s so great.

EXODUS (2007) - one of Hong Kong’s most urbane writer/directors is Pang Ho-cheng. Starting as a novelist, he self-produced his first film, You Shoot, I Shoot, about a wannabe filmmaker and a washed-up hitman who are forced into a partnership by the economic crisis to start a business that not only eliminates your enemies but provides you with a personalize video documenting the deed, shot in the style of your favorite director. He’s a favorite with kids for his end-credit gags, razor sharp scriptwriting, romantic heart, and his love of dirty jokes (his Vulgaria is about a film director who winds up working in porn, but it actually revolves around the mystery of whether or not he fucked a mule during a drunken dinner to secure financing from a bestiality-obsessed gangster). But his quiet, contemplative conspiracy comedy, Exodus, has largely been forgotten in the shuffle of his career and that’s too bad. Simon Yam plays a cop who interrogates a peeping tom and loses his patience when the pervert claims he’s been framed by a conspiracy of All The Women in the World who want to kill all the men. A few days later, the suspect disappears and Yam’s female boss tells him the guy never existed in the first place. Answering the question of what women are doing for so long in restaurant bathrooms, Pang slowly weaves a film that makes the idea that men are nothing more than the worker ants of a vast matriarchy seem logical. So po-faced and deadpan that it’s easy to miss the jokes, no movie I’ve ever seen before or since has wrung so much simultaneous comedy and tragedy out of a single hiccup. If you like directors who exhibit the cinematic control of a Zen monk, then this one’s for you.

HELP!!! (2000) - Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai are Hong Kong’s greatest writing-directing duo these days, and Johnnie To has a shot at being named one of the world’s greatest living directors. Whether it’s their metaphysical whatsit, Running on Karma, about a bodybuilding Buddhist monk turned male stripper who can see people’s karmic fate, Sparrow, their lighter than Umbrellas of Cherbourg pickpocket movie, or To’s one-two punch of Election and Election II that retells the modern day history of Hong Kong through the complicated internal politics of a crime gang, their movies are impeccably made, beautifully shot, and full of enough metaphysical musings to give a graduate film studies student multiple orgasms. Then there’s Help!!! From the moment they decided to write the script, to the time the movie appeared in theaters, it took 28 days. That’s 28 days for the movie to be written, shot, edited, marketed, and released. That is insane. Plugging a hole in the distribution schedule for their friend and boss Charles Heung, the movie was an experiment in what they could do under pressure and what they did was make one of the most random medical comedies ever to hit the screens like a spurt of arterial blood. Cecilia Cheung had an emergency appendectomy as a child and the two doctors on the job went out of their way to gallantly hide the scar so she could one day wear a bikini. Inspired to become a doctor herself she arrives at Ho Ka-kui Hospital to find that one of her hero doctors, played by bass-voiced Jordan Chan, is mostly concerned with going home early and ignoring his patients. The other, played by Ekin Cheng, is now an auto mechanic after an unspecified “tragedy” in his past. The entire hospital is run by an unseen cabal of penny pinching accountants who peer through the blinds like Dr. Seuss’s Once-ler, and everyone is so demoralized that patients die from neglect, cleaning ladies refuse to scrub toilets, and doctors spend most of their time sabotaging each other’s careers. Played for very dark laughs, the entire movie becomes a meta-loop at the end of its frantic 88 minute running time, but before it gets there we’re treated to an epic mudslide, multiple lightning strikes, and talking cars.

BACK TO BACK, FACE TO FACE (1994) - before he started making massive blockbusters celebrating the Communist Party (see: Founding of Republic and Founding of a Party), Huang Jianxin was the smartest, slyest member of China’s Fifth Generation (which includes Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou) that you’ve never heard of. B2B, F2F (as I like to call it) focuses on Acting Director Wang of the Xi’an Cultural Center, a minor functionary trapped in a vast bureacracy in the middle of nowhere. Eager to prove he’s a good party man, he allows the corruption of his superiors to pass unnoticed and takes a percentage off the corruption of his subordinates, expecting that a promotion to permanent director will be his. But when he’s passed over for a stodgy, patriotic Party member, he decides that it’s time to fight back, using all the red tape fu he’s acquired over the years. One of the cruelest black comedies to ever sneak out of China, if it was more widely known you’d say that it was the inspiration for Ricky Gervais’s The Office, only with more tea and in Mandarin.

LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010) - Having appeared in a string of uninspired Hollywood movies and bloated big-budget misfires, Jackie Chan’s become something of a joke. But at long last he’s made a movie that stands proudly alongside his greatest films. His best movie since Drunken Master II from way back in 1994, LBS finally sees him come to terms with his place in the Chinese film industry, his aging body, his legacy as an action star and even China’s place in the world. A sly satire on the endless string of period epics that are pouring out of China these days, it starts when the Liang and Wei armies have just wiped each other out in battle leaving only two survivors. One is the Old Soldier (Jackie Chan) a conscripted farmer who has lived through countless battles with one unbeatable technique: the second the fighting starts he falls down and pretends to be dead. The other survivor is the grievously wounded Wei General (Wang Lee-hom) a proud warrior whose one dream is death in battle. Capturing the Wei General, Jackie plans to get him back to his homeland and turn him in for a reward: the promise of peaceful retirement on his farm. The only problem is that his kingdom is hundreds of miles away across a wartorn no man's land full of barbarians. There have always been better martial artists, better stuntmen and better daredevils than Jackie Chan, but what makes him great is his timing and his mastery of physical comedy and here they’re both in full effect. He abandons massive stunts for down-to-earth, small-scale acrobatics and, unable to rely on the spectacle of risking his life to wow the audience, he’s found greatness again in his genuine screen presence and real acting chops. In a dizzying display of self-awareness, Jackie has made a movie whose message is “Change, or die,” and LBS represents the joyous fact that at 56 years old, Jackie has chosen “change.”

SAVE THE GREEN PLANET (2003) - an interplanetary plea for peace disguised as a horror movie, Save the Green Planet is one of those WTF films whose ambitions and aspirations are bigger than a single genre can contain. When Shin Ha-Kyun gets fired from work he decides that his boss, played by Baek Yoon-Sik (oozing gravitas), is an alien from Andromeda here to destroy the planet. Shin abducts Baek and tortures him gleefully in his basement and the film seems content to be a comedy thriller with a bit of Hostel-style torture on top. But then, it turns out that his boss might actually be an alien from Andromeda here to destroy the planet and STGP turns into a science fiction film so sincere and heartfelt yet so absurd and ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both. Police gun down squads of bees, the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey make an appearance, legs are amputated, anuses are probed, armageddon is in full effect, and sometimes the only person who believes in you is your mentally negligible, tightrope-walking girlfriend. It’s something of a national tragedy that director Jang Jun-Hwan never made another movie after this one, although given that he holed up in a motel for years working on a screenplay called Fartman, that might be for the best.

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (2000) - before Bong Joon-Ho was an internationally-recognized arthouse director whose sly deconstructed monster movie The Host was an international hit, and before his grueling whodunit, Mother, was invited to Cannes, he made his first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, a quiet comedy that starts off as a mystery about some missing dogs and ends up with nothing more or less at stake than the fate of its main character’s immortal soul. Trapped at home, Lee Sung-Jae is an unemployed college professor driven crazy by the demands of his pregnant wife and by the barking dog in his neighbor’s apartment that Just. Won’t. Shut. Up. Doggie kidnapping, followed by doggie-eating, and doggie-suicide all follow in quick succession. As the dog bodies pile up, the most junior member of the janitorial staff, played by the gormless Bae Doo-Na, decides she has to solve the crime of the phantom puppy killer. Over the course of her idiotic investigation she teams up, unawares, with Lee Sung-Jae, and you just know this won’t end well. Full of digressions on the length of the roll of a toilet paper, how many walnuts can fit in a glass, death by subway, and the tiny compromises we make every day in pursuit of the good life that finally leave us soulless, Barking Dogs Never Bite remains one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen, a movie I love without reason or logic, a movie that makes me wonder if society’s losers are the ones onto something good after all.

HANA & ALICE (2004) - Shunji Iwai is Japan’s best chronicler of adolescence but while his movies are usually soaked in music, menace, and melancholy, H&A is the polar opposite. Two best friends in high school, Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi), spend their year hanging out, getting in fights, and finding boyfriends. Being a Shunji Iwai movie, this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Hana is stalking a cute guy and when he hits his head she makes her move, convincing him that he’s got amnesia and has forgotten that she’s his girlfriend. He doesn’t believe her for a minute, but plays along with her adolescent insanity, curious to see where it’ll lead. Meanwhile, Alice is trying to become a ballet dancer, auditioning for commercials and wondering what she really cares about in this big wide world. Iwai immerses himself in the details, and injects every minor tragedy and personal setback with all the drama that the kids themselves regard them with, but he also sends up their overly-developed sensitivity to drama. Chronicling all the ridiculousness and all the ecstasy of being a teenager, he hovers over their shoulders watching all their silly failures and tiny triumphs, finally allowing Alice a moment at an audition when we see all the grace that these graceless bags of hormones sometimes accidentally stumble into. A minor movie, but a deeply rewarding one, H&A creeps up on you and quietly breaks your heart.

FISH STORY (2009) - conspiracy theories are inherently anti-human. The idea that we’re being controlled by a secret cabal of rich people and there’s nothing we can do about it is designed to make us feel powerless and not in control of our own destinies. In other words, it’s designed to make us feel like slaves. Thank god for Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story, a comedy bomb designed to counter the conspiracy theory myth. A science fiction movie, it tells the story of how a punk rock single recorded in 1975 by a band that broke up immediately afterwards literally saves the world from total annihilation by an asteroid in 2012. Nakamura’s genius is in developing an alternate conspiracy theory. If the world is being destroyed by a secret society of the rich and powerful, maybe there’s a counter-conspiracy where all the losers, geeks, nerds, all the failed bands, unpublished writers, fans of obscure vinyl, and all the people who exist at the margins are part of a secret conspiracy to save the world. If you’ve ever wondered what it is you’re doing with your life, and whether anything you do matters, Fish Story is the movie that gives you the answer. Never quit, never give up, never stop doing what you love because one day that album you recorded in your garage might just save everything.

8000 MILES 1 & 2 (2009 & 2010) - low budget, shot on scuzzy video, given to long scenes where nothing happens except real life passing you by, Yu Irie’s 8000 Mile movies are an acquired taste, like drinking kerosene. Part 1 is set in Saitama Prefecture, a middle-of-nowhere burb famous for its broccoli and home to the mighty hip hop act, Sho-Gung, made up of a bunch of dorks who sit around a deserted warehouse trying to decide if they’re East Coast or West Coast rappers. The booking of their first gig breaks up the band, a humilaition made all the worse when the “gig” turns out to be an afternoon presentation to the local PTA about the “youth problem.” The jokes are obvious, but what’s most impressive about Part 1 is how laid back it all is. Part 2 abandons Sho-Gung to head over to nearby Gunma Prefecture where an all-girl hip hop act, B-Hack, who performed once at a high school talent show, are trying to grow up. The issues are far more serious, the surrealism is far more deadpan, and as they wrestle with debt, unwanted pregnancies, abusive boyfriends and the death of their hip hop dreams they do that thing the comedies of the 70’s used to do: they become more real than real. Cuminating in a rap battle at a funeral that is one of the most heart-breaking and courageous moments ever put onscreen, the are two slice-of-life movies that don’t feel like much more than humiliation comedies when you watch them, but that stick with you for years after.

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Little Big Soldier was great.