Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.

Stan & Ollie

[4 stars]

How much of a comedy genius team was Laurel & Hardy? Watching their 90 year old routines elicit belly laughs in audiences, even when performed by stand-ins, is a clear indication. Steve Coogan (Ideal Home) and John C. Reilly (Ralph Breaks the Internet) resurrect the seminal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy so believably and effortlessly it is breathtaking. They inhabit the men and their material, playing them with love and subtlety. Reilly, in particular, disappears into Hardy’s bulk. And both men reassert that they’re capable of real acting and not just the broad, silly comedy they are more often associated with. In some ways, that background makes them perfect for these roles, adding meta layers to it all.

Despite the scope of years and geography, the cast isn’t much bigger than the titular characters. Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Shirley Henderson (Lady Bird), as their respective wives add to the reality and humanity of the duo while also bringing their own characters into the light. And Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus) has a nice driving role as their tour manager in England. Combined, the five create a huge world out of a small ensemble.

My one frustration with the film is that the opening scene in 1937 doesn’t really give you a solid sense of the duo at the top of their game because it almost immediately dives into a conflict. It makes it hard to fully understand the change in 1953, where it leaps to in short order to the end of their career. It isn’t a fatal flaw in the movie, but one I wish director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope had polished away. I will grant, however, that the script does a delightful job of reflecting the comedy routines into their off-stage lives…sometimes in irony and sometimes not.

It’s wonderful to see an adult film that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases, or action, but rather purely on the characters involved in a very quiet and real way. This is a story about two men that happen to be legends and are very much human and very much bound to one another. It is also a wonderful peek behind the performance curtain.

Father Brown (series 7)

[3 stars]

Father Brown has been around for a while now. They are sweetly entertaining cozy mysteries, much like Miss Marple but lacking some of the complications and not really worth calling out as something special. This newest series remains in the cozy territory, but our slightly secular Father B has suddenly become rather humanist and, somehow, even more religious at the same time. Every episode, save one, has him suggesting absolution via confession…not quite in the booth so much as the witness stand. Still it is a marked shift.

So too are the plots. Nearly every episode is a morality play tethered very much to the present, even though it is anchored in the past. The show has always shined a light on hypocrisy, but these plots go even further and are period only in their trappings. And it is clear the series was set up like stations of the cross; one episode per message. Only the finale cleaves fully to past series traditions in plot and, because of that, feels a little out of place with the remaining 9 episodes. It isn’t a bad finale…in fact, it is a rather satisfying one…but it is of a very different tenor, which makes the series arc a little unbalanced.

The cast remains the same, with Mark Williams (Early Man) running the presbytery with assistance from Sorcha Cusack (River), and  Emer Kenny (Pramface) and Nancy Carroll (Prime Suspect (1973)) hanging about. In the constabulary, John Burton gets a bit of an upgrade this series in focus. Only Jack Deam has devolved in development, becoming even more a pompous ass than he was, despite a few special moments. His character causes more than a little teeth-grinding thanks to his lack of growth and awareness. But even with that miss, the the show runners have imparted an interesting breath of fresh air into the show in this series, without mucking up what made it work in the first place.

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.

The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Strawberry and Chocolate

[3 stars]

This is a decidedly low-budget affair with moments of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocre and painful presentation. But those moments really do make the time worthwhile, as numerous festivals and the Oscars agreed.

Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz make an unlikely pairing of friends from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cruz is a true believer in the Communist party in Cuba, while Perugorría is a bit more aware of the realities of life and politics…not to mention a gay man in a macho society.  With a bit of help from the neighbor, Mirta Ibarra, the three become friends and help one another heal.

The story that plays out is more than a little forced, but the commentary and emotions that are surfaced are as applicable today as they were over 20 years ago when this film was made. The relationships that form are genuine, even if the ages of the actors and backstories for the characters are a little off. As a peek inside Cuban culture, and loving look at people generally, it is a funny and heartwarming journey as director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate contribution to film.

 

Flower Of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto)

[3 stars]

Admittedly, as a filmmaker, Pedro Almodavar (I’m So Excited) is a matter of personal taste. I happen to enjoy his dark humor and skewed vision of the world. Flower of My Secret is actually a bit more mainstream than a lot of his earlier work, though Almodavar was a great choice for adapting the Dorothy Parker short story (The Lovely Leave).

In many ways it is riffing on a theme of independence that is getting a lot of attention these days (though this is from 1995). It would live comfortably alongside another Spanish language offering, Gloria nicely, though with a very different sensibility. 

Marisa Paredes (Queens) is wonderful as a grand dame lost and without a sense of her own strength, but eventually fighting to find it. Opposite her, in an unlikely role, is Juan Echanove. “Unlikely” because of his story and path, not because of the actor. Their relationship is best described as symbiotically odd. And yet, it works in Almodavar’s capable hands. 

Smaller roles by Almodavar stalwarts Rossy De Palma (Broken Embraces) as Paredes’ sister and the late Chus Lampreave (Broken Embraces) as her mother bring in some needed comedy and homespun grounding. The three work together wonderfully as a dysfunctional family devoted to one another. Another actor no longer with us,  Manuela Vargas, adds some other wonderful layers and moments as Paredes’ maid. 

For a bit of distraction that is less bittersweet than usual, this is worth catching up with if you missed it when it came out. Almodavar never picks easy characters for us to love, but he usually wins us over to their side before the final credits and helps us see ourselves in them while he’s at it. 

Escape Room

[3 stars]

Silly, satisfying popcorn fun, as you’d expect.

Much like Cube and Saw before it, this collection of crazily conceived challenges for the characters offers a lot of dark entertainment, and some nice attempts at making it all believable. As a first feature script for Schut and Melnik, there is a real attempt to create just-believable-enough scenarios and people to drive the well-worn genre and provide some unexpected moments, if not exactly surprises. Adam Robitel’s direction, as only his second feature, likewise shows some nice talent with pacing and finding emotional threads to keep it all going.

The result isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining. Nik Dodani (Atypical), in particular, gets ripped off as a character, never really becoming someone we care about. But Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and
Taylor Russell (Before I Fall) actually get to build quite a bit of backstory and sense of life. Logan Miller (Love, Simon) and Tyler Labine (Voltron: Legendary Defender), aren’t quite as lucky and Jay Ellis (The Game) is really just a parody. These uneven efforts work in this genre, but does make the film a bit less than it might of become.

So, if you’re a fan of these kinds of inventive evil mayhem that may or may not ever really make sense, make an appointment for the Escape Room. If you are hoping for something a bit richer and more complete, like It or some of the other more recent reinventions of horror/suspense, this is going to come up a bit short…primarily for the ending, but also because of the uneven character development.

Vice

[4 stars]

Hilarious. Nauseating. Angering. Unreal. Adam McKay’s (The Big Short) depiction and investigation into the life of Dick Cheney is full of energy and, from the outset, honest about where he stands on the subject.

Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) delivers an astounding performance as Cheney. To say he disappears into the role is an understatement. It is creepy, it is so believable. By his side, Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals) does an equally chilling turn as his wife, Lynne. Even while humanizing them, they are unabashedly power hungry, walking evil. Not that I or McKay have an opinion on the matter.

There are some rather good bit performances as well. Sam Rockwell’s (Woman Walks Ahead) George W. Bush grew on me as he played it out. LisaGay Hamilton (Take Shelter) as Condoleezza Rice was quietly magnetic and Shea Whigham (First Man) was decidedly vile. I do have to say that I didn’t find Steve Carrell’s (Welcome to Marwen) Rumsfeld very solid, which was disappointing. It eventually got there, but there was something off in his presence and I couldn’t ever quite see the real man.

One performance being utterly missed, because it is so invisible in many ways, is Jesse Plemons (Game Night). His role is somewhat thankless, but he is the engine that keeps it all humming along. It is a solid definition of supporting actor and worth mentioning.

There is no question this movie has an agenda, as I’ve mentioned. It is as accurate as possible (and it becomes clear why that is only “as possible”), but the overall tone is clear. And do stick through the first two sections of credits, and look carefully, to get McKay’s final points.

I’m not sure if this is an empowering film or simply a warning. Frankly, I had difficultly making it through as it isn’t what one could call hopeful. However, it is a strong reminder of why we have to stay involved in the process and think for ourselves. Democracy, like marriage, is work. Stop putting in the effort, stop asking questions, and stop holding people accountable and you only have yourself to blame for the results.

But, as a film, it is entertaining. Just go in with a deep breath and stay calm or you’ll find yourself tied in knots by the end.