Tag: comedy

Review: Ayoade on Top

Ayoade on Top is a satirical monograph by comedian Richard Ayoade (whom you’ll know as Moss from The IT Crowd) on the American aeroplane romcom View from the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. View from the Top has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%, just to give you an idea of the calibre of work we’re talking about here.

Ayoade has some fair if obvious points to make about this genre of film:

Cinema helps us to remember that although we all have the right to shine, some of us must shine in the background, out of focus, and not too brightly.

And I can’t help but admire the sheer randomness of this project: a parody of a type of writing most people don’t ever read, about an obscure film most people will never see? How does one even go about selling that? let alone convincing people to buy it? I suspect name recognition helps, but still, the market for this book must be less than enormous – it’s a refreshing change from big-name commercial cash-grabs like The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

It’s an entertaining enough read, in other words (especially if you can do Ayoade’s deadpan voice in your head), but the joke does become – a little laboured. 250 pages is about 150 pages too long for this particular gag. For all its originality, I think Ayoade on Top is destined to go down in the annals of publishing as no more than a minor work.

Review: Moranifesto

I didn’t not enjoy Moranifesto, a collection of journalist Caitlin Moran’s irreverent, feminist Times columns, together with some new content covering familiar ground. It’s well-written: Moran has a lively, colloquial style of the sort that’s very difficult indeed to achieve. It’s inoffensive, apart from a liberal dose of swearing. Even the claims of irrelevance plenty of Goodreads reviewers are making miss the mark: it’s true that the columns here cover events as long ago as 2012, but we’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, big-ticket things like the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. It’s not as if Moran’s tackling obscure current events with players nobody remembers any more.

And yet, that word irrelevant keeps coming to mind when I think about Moranifesto. Of course it’s hard to achieve anything earth-shattering within the constraints of a 1000-word newspaper column. But it doesn’t help that nothing Moran says is truly that original. She sets out, I think, to be shocking, with her profanity, her frequent references to vaginas and other taboo feminist issues, her irreverence for royalty and politicians and other things the Sunday papers like to treat as Very Serious. And it works! It works when it’s a page in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about periods or how difficult it is to find comfortable women’s shoes or how shitty and exploitative Benefits Street is – it’s a breath of fresh air amid four-page interviews with celebrities and strait-laced pieces about politics. As a book, though? There are fiercer and bolder voices out there: voices like Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Catherynne M. Valente. Actually even Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl is more groundbreaking: the principle of “show not tell” inherent in all fiction gives her themes greater power and greater impact.

Moranifesto is fine. There’s no reason not to read it if you already like Moran’s columns; if you’re a feminist and a little bit of a socialist too. If you’re looking for a read that’s appropriately angry without being too mentally taxing. But nor do I think there’s a particularly compelling reason to read it. Try How to Build a Girl instead.

Film Review: Love Actually

Lindy Miller’s piece in Jezebel says just about everything there is to say about Love Actually, viz., that “this is a movie made for women by a man” wherein the only expressions of straight romantic “love” on show are ones where men lay claim to voiceless women.

If you haven’t seen the film, it consists of multiple interlinked plotlines, all of them centred on an actual or potential straight couple. An eleven-year-old pines after a cool girl from America. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) crushes on his secretary. A writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who speaks no English. There are lots, I won’t list them all, but suffice it to say that none of them are particularly original and/or revelatory. Straights gonna straight.

It is a fact, though, that the storylines that come closest to showcasing actual, healthy love as it manifests in the real world are the ones where a romantic connection is missed or dropped; the ones that end unhappily from a traditional rom-com perspective. So: Sarah (Laura Linney) chooses her mentally ill brother over her workplace crush, which, in the world of Love Actually, is a terrible tragedy that dooms her to a life of spinsterhood. Women: men require your complete attention at all times! Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) chooses to stay with her emotionally unfaithful husband for (it’s implied) the good of their children, a sacrifice I’m not sure I can see any of the male characters making.*

What to make of this? That romance is incompatible with real life and real commitments? I’m not sure director Richard Curtis really means to suggest this, but it’s a compelling reading of the film’s worldview nonetheless. I’m particularly thinking of that bizarre subplot where Colin, who is everything his name suggests, heads out to America to find women to sleep with. The scene where three impossibly hot American ladies ALL find him adorable and invite him back home for a foursome reads like a dream sequence, honestly, so removed is it from reality. Oh, then there’s the subplot where Karen’s husband’s hot employee throws herself at him repeatedly, despite the fact that he literally looks like Snape. And then there’s the bit when a woman whose husband’s best friend has been creeping on her is FLATTERED rather than running away extremely fast…And then

Well, you get the idea. Almost the entire film is the fantasy of an average-looking straight man: filled with women whose entire world revolves around him (because LUURVE). And woe betide them if they care about anything other than him: they shall be denied the comforts of romantic male company FOR EVER! (Just as well, you might think, given Love Actually‘s conception of what romantic love is.)

And yet. Love Actually remains quite watchable. Doubtless that has something to do with the calibre of the actors involved – it’s one of those films that will have you playing the “now, what were they in?” guessing game – but I also think there’s something about the mildly unconventional shape of the film, the various intercutting plots and subplots, that holds the attention. There’s something for even the most hostile watcher to enjoy (for me, Emma Thompson; Bill Nighy; Rowan Atkinson in a cameo as an officious department store worker). And the whole thing is nicely paced, too, bringing those interconnecting strands together towards the end of the film to place the characters in a community of sorts. Because, you know, love is all around us.

Gods help us.

 

*I’m still not sure what to do with the storyline about an ageing rock star played by Bill Nighy and his manager, which is also quite sweet. I always read them as gay/bisexual, but I am assured other people don’t.

Film Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a warm-hearted send-up of the cosy mystery genre: the Agatha Christie-type stories where an eccentric detective plucks a murderer from a tight-knit family/social unit of seven to ten people. In this case, the eccentric detective is Benoit Blanc, a man of idiosyncratic methods played by Daniel Craig in a deeply improbable Southern US accent. He’s been engaged by the police to investigate the murder of Harlan Thrombey, a famous writer who’s amassed a vast fortune through churning out bloody mystery novels. The suspects are his family, who are all in various ways hankering after or reliant on his money, the housekeeper Fran and his Brazilian nurse Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant.

Director Rian Johnson steers us through a host of twists and turns as Benoit Blanc (who we always suspect is slightly incompetent) seeks his culprit, asking seemingly inane questions and plinking piano keys as the regular police interview the suspects. This is a film both full of surprises and utterly familiar, plot-wise: a place where we can safely expect the unexpected.

The politics of Knives Out, however, upend this comfortable conformity. The Thrombeys fall into two political camps: comfortably-racist-bordering-on-white-supremacist (complete with a radicalised teenage boy who spends his time viewing alt-right websites on his smartphone) and blinkered white liberals who can’t see their own racism. Both use Marta as a talking point in their immigration debates, a comment on their shared inability to see people of colour as fully human, and, when things get nasty, both camps are willing to threaten and/or manipulate her in order to get what they want. But the film – and Benoit Blanc – is firmly on her side throughout: on the side of kindness, decency, professionalism, humanity. And the end of the film sees not a comfortable return to the status quo – which is how many of these stories end; violence and discontent contained by the solving of the mystery so life can go on as normal – but an upheaval of the social order. Marta inherits the Thrombey house, and Harlan’s grasping family leave empty-handed, Marta looking on silently from an upper balcony. Not a return to the status quo, but perhaps a hopeful instatement of a new status quo, where the good inherit the earth.

In other words: watch Knives Out! It’s a beautifully-made film, colourful in character and incident, a universe to fall into and a site of hope; cosy and progressive at the same time.

Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: It Devours!

Like its predecessor Welcome to Night Vale, Jeffrey Fink and Joseph Cranor’s second Night Vale spinoff novel It Devours! is much better than anyone had a right to expect.

Although characters from the first novel do feature, it’s a standalone story in its own right, following the adventures of scientist Nilanjana as she investigates what’s been causing the mysterious and deadly sinkholes opening up in the desert on the outskirts of Night Vale. Her researches lead her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a church whose members seem to be taking their belief in a giant all-devouring centipede a little too literally for the town’s comfort.

Because, of course, this is Night Vale, an absurdist vision of small-town America where wheat and wheat by-products have been banned since they all turned into snakes in 2012, black helicopters circle overhead recording citizens’ every move, and a radiant glow cloud serves on the school governing board. (All hail the Glow Cloud!) The ever-encroaching, Lovecraftian-but-funny chaos of the town makes it an ideal setting for a story about people trying to make sense of a vast and confusing universe, whether that’s through science or religion.

The novel’s nuance, such as it is, comes from its refusal to land on either side, its ultimate point being that trying to understand the universe through any one limited set of values is at best futile and at worst actively dangerous. Of course, Night Vale’s scientists look precisely nothing like any scientist you might find in the real world: the life’s work of one of Nilanjana’s colleagues involves repeatedly admonishing potatoes to see how it affects them. But then the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God looks very little like the kind of religious congregation you’d expect to find in real life (as opposed to in popular media). The very fact of reducing the values of these groups down to the point of absurdity, removing them from the sphere of realism, reframes the debate: this isn’t a novel retreading the hoary old arguments pitting science against religion, though it may look like one. Instead, it asks us to think beyond that traditional binary and consider the universe as radically inexplicable by either method.

To a point, anyway. It’s a thoughtful novel, surprisingly so for a media spin-off, but it is not particularly complex. Its plot structure is solidly built and satisfying, but a little too…schematic for a novel about the randomness of existence. It’s got a good heart, though, and that is not something to be sneezed at.

Review: Shopaholic Ties the Knot

This review contains spoilers.

Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is a real guilty pleasure for me. Much like the consumer goods its protagonist Becky Bloomwood is always buying, they offer wish-fulfilling instant gratification that also feels a bit gross, long-term. In this, the third novel in the series, Becky gets engaged to her hunky rich boyfriend Luke and starts planning a wedding. But she soon finds she has to choose between a lavish New York wedding organised by Luke’s snooty and emotionally uninvolved mother Eleanor, or a homespun one at her parents’ house in English suburbia.

The solution combines the logic of capitalism with the logic of romantic comedy: she has not one but two weddings, and helps Eleanor and Luke rebuild their strained relationship along the way, thereby neatly pacifying both families and reconciling two apparently competing value systems: the one that says “family comes first” and the one that says “all your dreams can come true!” Although this reconciliation is really just a triumph for capitalism, which, as we know, is flexible enough to consume everything, even ideas.

Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about a Kinsella novel in this way, because ultimately they are the fast fashion of literature, meant for reading and discarding, no brain engagement needed, and they are very successful at that! But I wouldn’t want them to be the only things I read.

Review: A Slip of the Keyboard

Published in 2014, A Slip of the Keyboard was Terry Pratchett’s first collection of non-fiction pieces, covering everything from casting bees in gold to his work on assisted dying.

I held off on reading it for years out of a combination of healthy scepticism about the commercial reasons for publishing such a collection and exhaustion with the glut of substandard Pratchett work coming out at the time (his Alzheimer’s had a marked effect on Discworld – not his fault, necessarily, but also deeply sad for a lot of his readers), and it turns out I was not wrong to avoid it. Not that A Slip of the Keyboard is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it is just…limited. Pratchett in non-fiction, it turns out, is pretty conventional, lacking the ferocious wit and inventiveness of a Douglas Adams, say, or even the crusading anger of someone like Kameron Hurley – which is strange, because one thing everyone who knew him seems to comment on is his rage, the engine that, apparently, powered him. (I would never characterise the Discworld novels as angry; quite the opposite: they are full of hope and humanity. They often feature moments of anger, people angry on behalf of their families or their communities or their land, but it is not an anger that lasts beyond immediate need.)

He’s also pretty repetitive: this is, of course, a function of collecting pieces written for different occasions and venues across several years in a single volume, but it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable reading experience (and see Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt for a non-fiction collection that isn’t overly repetitive).

There are also hints here of the unwelcome conservatism that began creeping into his later novels (although if you look carefully it’s always been there, I think). Complaining about 50% taxation, in print, as Pratchett does in “Taxworld”, is not a good look for a millionaire who popularised the Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. And in Neil Gaiman’s foreword to the collection, where he talks once again about Pratchett’s rage, he relates an anecdote in which he and Pratchett are late to a radio show because Pratchett refused to take a taxi. Affable old Sir Terry is so angry about his own mistake that they make the journey in silence. This basically sets the tone for the entire collection: here we have a grumpy old man, well past the peak of his career, complaining about taxes and making off-colour jokes.

It’s not all bad. There are some good bits about science fiction conventions, and writing Discworld, and signing tours; and his essay from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, “Notes From a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real” is always a gem. But, you know the old saying. Never read your heroes’ ill-considered opinion pieces. On the whole, I could have done without this collection and its unflattering picture of an author I’ve always loved.

Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Set in the world of the podcast from which it takes its name, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s novel Welcome to Night Vale is better written and more emotionally true than you might think, given its origins. (See also The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, a novel that started off life as a YouTube series, and should have stayed there.)

Briefly, the podcast takes the form of a community radio show in a desert town called Night Vale, where a glowing cloud sits on the school board, a seven-headed dragon runs for mayor, and people don’t believe in mountains – among many other things. In Night Vale, the strange and disturbing is mundane, and vice versa. As such, it foregrounds how the things we take for granted may in fact be miraculous, and how life is both strange and fleeting: “mostly void, partially stars”.

The novel runs with the same tone; but its narrative is more focused. Whereas each episode of the podcast may tell its own tale, and overall storylines advance only slowly, if at all, the novel offers up a considerably tighter narrative, focused on just two characters: Jackie Fierro, the nineteen-year-old owner of a mystical pawn shop, who never seems to get older or experience any progression of time; and Diane Crayton, treasurer of Night Vale High School’s PTA, whose adolescent son is a literal shape-shifter (an obvious metaphor for the crises of identity that people of that age often face!). Both of them, separately, receive a message from a mysterious man in a tan jacket (a recurring, and sinister, character in the podcast): a piece of paper, which they literally cannot put down, reading simply KING CITY.

They investigate, separately. They run across each other. They annoy each other; they go on a journey together; they bond! Narrative-wise, Fink and Cranor aren’t doing anything new or clever, especially compared to the episodic and quite narrative-free podcast. But the book is solidly built, and perhaps all the more emotionally resonant for that. At its heart it’s a novel about community, reconciliation, emotional re-connection and mutual support, in which people help each other to go on in trying times. This is where the weird fantasy elements really come into their own: adrift upon the sea of strangeness which is their reality, the citizens of Night Vale rely on each other to build islands of safety and of courage.

I’ve always found Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast, strangely soothing, despite its creepiness: radio show host Cecil Baldwin builds a haven of mundanity out of terror and surveillance. The novel’s helped me clarify for myself just why that is, as well as building on that sense of contingent safety to become something that can stand on its own just fine.