Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

The Magicians (series finale)

[4 stars]

I honestly didn’t think Magicians was going to survive the transition from season 4 and the exit of a major character. Not because they were such a great character but because they were a central lynchpin for everything else around them. It was part of what made the finale last season so effective. But where do you go from that?

The answer is to shake it all up. The loss is still there as an emotional ghost driving the machine, at least as a starting point. Characters all deal with the loss in different ways. But, smartly, the show has gone deeper into those remaining characters and, more importantly, even upset the seasonal structure. This round has a unique shape and, possibly, one of the best time-loop stories ever put together; certainly one of the best in a very long time.

This final season managed to be two seasons in one, packing a huge amount of story into the 13 episodes. And the last two episodes manage to wrap up a bundle of threads that leave it all very satisfying without closing off potential. The creators always knew this might be their last, so they worked hard to make this a season as well as a series finale, should it have to be. There is none of that lingering bitter aftertaste of incomplete tales.

The Magicians, overall, is a nicely arc’d five seasons. Sure it is loaded with angst and gratuitous sex and violence (and occasionally forced and overwrought), but all to make it feel different. This isn’t a pretty fantasy world, it’s dark and real and messy. Actions have consequences and people (and gods) disappoint… often. But it is ultimately satisfying and fun, even if it drifted so far from the original book material as to be practically unrecognizable to Grossman fans.

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Ready or Not

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this silly satire more than I did. To its credit, it doesn’t even pretend to try to surprise. The movie’s opening scene lays out for you the mystery and some roots for the resolution. The rest is just snarky comments and mayhem. Certainly it can be entertaining, but it is no Cabin in the Woods, Bad Time at the El Royale, or even Knives Out, though it shares aspects of each. What it is missing, as compared to any of these, is layers. It’s a simple popcorn distraction.

What makes it work, as far as it does, is the complete commitment of the actors; Samara Weaving (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Adam Brody (Life Partners), Mark O’Brien (Marriage Story) in particular. These three have the only emotional conflicts and complexity to them. Though Nicky Guadagni (Suspiria) has a subtle sort of path to follow, and is a hoot and it was fun to see Kristian Bruun (Orphan Black) even if he really wasn’t given much to do.

If you’re looking for some bloody distraction with some amusing, if obvious, humor, this is your treat. There isn’t much more to it than that, and the ending is both oddly satisfying and weirdly disappointing. To its credit, at least it doesn’t go for cheap ways to try and build a franchise.

Ready or Not

Wild Nights with Emily

[3 stars]

Emily Dickinson has remained a surprisingly controversal character in the field of poetry.  This somewhat comic biography/exposé of her life isn’t likely to reduce that. In fact, for some, it may shatter their sense of her.

The movie is at its best when writer/director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) is using the story to skewer the literary world and literary criticism. Primarily this is through the voice and actions of Amy Seimetz (Pet Sematary), who’s smarmy, self-important Mabel Loomis Todd provides the narrative thread to explain what we thought we knew about Dickinson’s life and art. Olnek counterpoints it throughout with the re-enactments/fictional conceptions based on the recent revelations of Dickinson’s letters and poetry.

Molly Shannon’s (We Don’t Belong Here) is often restrained as Dickinson, but occasionlly a little unleashed. She and Susan Ziegler (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) present the challenge of a life-long relationship in an era where it should have been impossible. And yet, it appears to have been one of the worst kept secrets of its village and family. It was the rewriting of that history that hid that truth for over 100 years.

Where Olnek’s film is at its weakest is when she allowed the comedy to get too broad (no pun intended). Some of this is with Shannon, but it extends to side characters too, such as maid Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) or Emily’s brother played by Kevin Seal (Laggies). Also, the overall structure is somewhat fractured, slipping between a sort of forced period movie approach and contemporary speech and editing. The combination isn’t always comfortable or effective.

The odd sensibility and choices aside, the film works. The angering absurdity of the time and situation, not to mention the impact of the decisions, hits home well. For something a little different that will entertain and even educate a little, this is a good choice.

Wild Nights with Emily

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

[3 stars]

Before Jojo Rabbit, but after Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny took on Hitler and WWII in their own slightly-screwball comedy of Polish acting royalty battling the Nazi invasion in Warsaw. And they had help from a very young Robert Stack.

There is a lot to enjoy in this wartime, feel-good flick. Director Ernst Lubitsch helped the cast navigate the darker sides of war, leaning into it as a foil rather than sinking into it in despair. Given this was created and released less than a year after Pearl Harbor, that’s pretty amazing.

Admittedly, the rhythm of the comedy overall is a bit odd for today. Though Lombard’s fast, sharp wit, a la her previous Twentieth Century, is certainly one of highlights. Overall, there is more of a stage sensibility with the dialogue and odd pauses. But, despite the dated feel, it manages to entertain and surprise with a clever script and focus on the human in the danger. But it isn’t a satire or larger commentary, it is purely a romantic comedy with WWII trappings.

And I could be wrong, but To Be or Not To Be is also probably one of the last comedies about Hitler until Mel Brooks tackled him again in The Producers 25 years later. (Note: though I know Abbot and Costello made Hitler Ho!, I can’t find a year for it anywhere, let alone a copy). As WWII quickly progressed, humor about it was not what people were looking for.

For a silly escape with some historical significance, this is worth looking up at some point…and the Criterion restoration is crisp and beautiful.

To Be or Not to Be

The House that Jack Built

[2.5 stars]

Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac) is never an easy artist to watch. And, of late, I’m not entirely sure he’s as capable of delivering a complete and cohesive message, as he did with films like Melancholia. But you can’t say he isn’t fearless in the material he tackles.

His latest film is a foray into the sociopathic mind by way of Dante, and it isn’t just a little self-referential at times. As Jack, Matt Dillon (Going in Style), spends 2.5 hours explaining his concept of art and his reason for his efforts to Bruno Ganz (Remember) in a wide-ranging and rambling dialogue. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface of it, but as metaphor for filmmaking it’s a message to von Trier’s audiences and critics. Whether you accept that message or not, well that’s up to you.

But, as always, von Trier pulled together a solid supporting cast to help make his point. Top among them are Uma Thurman (Burnt), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Wayward Pines), Sofie Gråbøl (Fortitude), and particularly Riley Keough (We Don’t Belong Here). Keough transforms for her role completely and is the most complex of the women in this offering.

So, do you need to spend time in Jack’s house? That’s pretty much up to you. If you’re a completist or truly love von Trier’s work, then you should settle in for the assault. If you are new to von Trier or are simply looking for a movie to make you think… you may want to look elsewhere. I’m still torn about it as there are moments and an overall shape and motion that was intriguing. But ultimately, I think, it is too self-conscious and takes too long to get to the point.

The House That Jack Built

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family

Slaughterhouse Rulez

[3 stars]

Whenever Simon Pegg (Terminal) and Nick Frost (Fighting With My Family) are involved, even just as actors and producers, you know it isn’t going to be a straight-forward story. Slaughterhouse Rulez reteams them with Crispian Mills’s (A Fantastic Fear of Everything) for a coming-of-age bording school black comedy…with an eco-message and monsters and not a few oblique swipes at Harry Potter and a dash of St. Trinian’s thrown in.

That crazy salad aside, there is little to surprise in Mills’s script; it’s all about the delivery. And Mills got the talent to deliver it with for sure. Michael Sheen (Dolittle), Margot Robbie (Bombshell), Asa Butterfield (The Space Between Us), and Tom Rhys Harries (Hunky Dory) carry a good part of the story. However, like Kingsman: The Secret Service, it finds in Finn Cole (Peaky Blinders) the pleeb in us all to let us root for someone to survive, as much as you do engage on that level.

Because it isn’t riffing on a specific genre, like Shaun of the Dead, it doesn’t have quite the same underlying punch or support. That doesn’t make it unfunny, just not quite as focused and digestible. But the reality is that either you like this kind of comedy or you don’t. If you do, give this the time. If you don’t, there are better options out there to try it out.

Slaughterhouse Rulez

Dolittle

[2.75 stars]

Director/writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) wouldn’t seem a likely choice for this classic children’s fare. You’d be right. While he brought an interesting darkness to the tale, he and the various co-writers couldn’t quite pull it all together into a movie.

What you get, instead, is a collection of moments. Many of them are really quite fun and/or funny. Enough so, in fact, that many kids may not mind the breezy plot that blows all those bits mostly in one direction. What’s a shame was the waste of talent in the main roles that give it what life it has.

Obviously Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers) toplines the flick. He’s amusing, but it is an odd and empty performance. He’s all show and little heart despite the big machinations going on. The comic timing is fine, but there is no foundation supporting it all. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) and Anotonio Banderas (Life Itself) each have pivotal roles to play, though only Banderas has any dimensionality to him. Sheen is just bluster and exageration. He’s not scary enough for adults and probably a bit too mean for young children.

There are many throw-aways as well, like Jessie Buckley (Judy) and Jim Broadbent (Le Week-End) not to mention a slew of voice talent too long to list, but it includes a fun scene with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) worth calling out. You may have noticed how many of these names are either up for awards or have received them in the past. Like I said, a lot of wasted talent.

I feel the worst for the two child actors, Harry Collett (Casualty) and Carmel Laniado (A Christmas Carol) who should have had this as a strong springboard for their careers, and instead are stuck with some nice reel footage and being associated with a financial bomb.

All that said, I did laugh a lot and enjoyed myself, but that was because I had set the bar very low going in. I recognized how weak the story was going to be and just went with it. Kids will find plenty to enjoy. Parents will probably split on the experience from beign slightly diverting to really disappointing. While it’s definitely filmed for the big screen, you can probably wait on this one if you’d rather not spend the time or dollars at the theater.

Dolittle