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It’s the one of the oldest complaints in showbiz, and still it persists: dying is easy, comedy is hard, yet the latter gets less respect. The generally serious-minded BFI is looking to rectify that with its annual winter retrospective season. Previous editions have been thematically devoted to gothic, romance and black cinema, but Comedy Genius – in an elastic range of modes and styles – is the focus of this year’s, running the gamut from the Marx brothers to Girls Trip. For those who can’t get to the cinema, however, the ever-improving BFI Player has its own pleasingly diverse range of comedy options, some obvious (it’s not like you need another outlet through which to view Bridesmaids, but there it is just in case), but many significantly harder to find in the streaming universe.
Best of all is a surprisingly expansive collection of entirely free-to-stream material, much of which is entirely new to me. A hit-and-miss roundup of 60 shorts and features from the archives of British comedy, many of them unearthed from the silent era, it’s ideal for grazing and sampling, offering a fair overview of the genre’s evolution in the process.
Many of the discoveries offer more curiosity value than belly laughs. Take The Perfect Woman, a 1949 battle-of-the-sexes farce from the Rank vault in which a mad scientist creates an idealised robo-femme, with inevitably chaotic results. It’s spry, and gamely performed, but most valuable now as a distillation of another era’s loopy gender politics – at once retrograde and making awkward lunges at modernity. As dated but more breezily fun is Kate Plus Ten, a kicky Edgar Wallace adaptation from 1938 featuring delicious US star Genevieve Tobin as a mob leader attempting to relieve a speeding train of its golden cargo. And the most guaranteed laughs tend to come in short form. Most winningly silly of all is Miranda, a popular British smash from 1948 that now plays as Splash with a stiff upper lip. Starring Glynis Johns as a flirty mermaid brought ashore to London, it’s a gossamer romp that boasts one immortal closing credit: “Tail by Dunlop”.
If you’re choosier and less curio-inclined, the BFI Player’s rentals and subscription sections each have a rich, less obscure comic menu on offer. Rentals account for the most expected selections, from The Big Lebowski and the eternally fizzy The Lady Eve. Subscribers can sample the most lateral and international choices from the season. Yorgos Lanthimos’s perverse dysfunctional-family allegory Dogtooth isn’t everyone’s idea of a rib-tickler, but Ealing’s original Whisky Galore! is a safer, tiddlier choice. The dreamily bonkers erotic-musical-farcical-whatsit of Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud, meanwhile, lies somewhere endearingly in between. Any menu that includes both Věra Chytilová’s dada feminist freakout Daisies and Joanna Hogg’s melancholic botched-holiday study Unrelated is out to open debate about what comedy is, and what its rules, if any, are.
Finally, moving away from the BFI Player, a mention for a genre-spinning, black-comic action rattler for which British viewers have been waiting an unaccountably long time. For five years, Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, the odd, propulsive, cult-forming Snowpiercer, has been denied either a cinema or a home entertainment release in the UK, but has at last surfaced legally on iTunes. Its arrival, however late, is at least timely. Its dystopian vision of human society confined entirely on one massive, viciously class-divided speed train under the tyrannical rule of Tilda Swinton’s Thatcher-like harpy is a rather more immediate political allegory for far-right separatism now than it seemed in 2013. Maybe try it before heading over to the Comedy Genius season; after watching it you’ll want a laugh.
New to streaming & DVD this week
The Other Side of the Wind (Netflix)
Orson Welles’s troubled, long-in-limbo final film has been impressively patched together for a Netflix release. A heaving, rolling, nightmarish Hollywood satire, it’s part mesmerising, part mess.
Leave No Trace (Sony, 12)
One of the year’s great American films, this earthy survivalist stunner (right) from director Debra Granik expands richly on the rural canvas she explored so successfully in Winter’s Bone, with even more stirring results.
Faces Places (Curzon Artificial Eye, 12)
Whisper it soft, in light of the recent Agnès Varda revival, but this jaunty country travelogue is an over-precious trifle by the standards of her best work.
First Reformed (Universal, 15)
A comeback few expected from Paul Schrader, this taut, morally tangled ecclesiastical drama offers Ethan Hawke one of his best roles as a Protestant priest staring faith in the face.
Adrift (Sony, 12)
A surprisingly involving true-life romance on the high seas, carried by a grand sense of seasick spectacle and committed performances by Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: the pick of BFI’s Comedy Genius season | Comedy films