Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Dead Pixels

[3 stars]

If IT Crowd had been purely about gaming, it would have been something like this riotous look at the sub-culture of dedicated players.

Though Alexa Davies (Spaceship) and William Merrick (Poldark) are the indisputable center of this absurd comedy, it wouldn’t work without Charlotte Ritchie (McDonald & Dodds) providing a normal center for them to bounce off of. David Mumeni (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) and Sargon Yelda (Strike) round out the comedy chops of the digital gang.

For 22 minutes of silliness, that mirrors real life a bit too much at times, this is a great choice. It manages to be both funny and sad while defending and skewering its characters.

Now the real question is why in Atari’s name did the CW ever purchase this show when they have to bleep it every few seconds? They don’t even offer an uncensored version online. Honestly, it was unwatchable on broadcast, but worth finding online or on disc elsewhere.

Fantasy Island (2020)

[3 stars]

It’s easy to forget that Fantasy Island wasn’t all 80’s kitsch and sweetness, it had a dark side. This remake tries to capitalize on that aspect. And, for the most part, it’s successful, even if the logic is stretched and the plot falls apart near the end. But up till then, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow, along with the rest of his previous Truth or Dare? team (Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach), is somewhat clever in how he helps it embrace both aspects of the classic show.

Much like the original, this is a collection of stories. In the wide-ranging ensemble, Lucy Hale (Truth or Dare?), Maggie Q (Priest), and Jimmy O. Yang (Space Force) stand out by force of charisma. They’re joined by a number of other good players that bump the plot along, such as Michael Rooker (Brightburn), Portia Doubleday (Mr Robot), and Parisa Fitz-Henley (My Spy). The rest of the cast serve simply to fill out the story; not poorly, just not memorably.

However Michael Peña (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), in the pivotal Mr. Roarke roll, feels utterly wrong. You have to be both pulled to the man and terrified of him. Peña has neither the presence nor the menace necessary.

What I will grant the movie is that it is a movie, not just an overblown TV episode. But while it can stand on its own, I suspect it has much more impact as a retcon of the series. Were it not for the wobble near the end, it would have been much more satisfying. But it’s a pretty big wobble as it tries to wrap it all up. Fortunately, the final moments are a bit more fulfilling. As to whether you should book a trip here…well, that’s up to you.

Irresistible

[3 stars]

There is little subtlety to this latest outing by Jon Stewart (Rosewater). But, then again, did you expect any?

Steve Carell (Vice) and Rose Byrne (Instant Family) are the core of the movie. They are both absurd in their presentation…partly to make a point, but partly because Stewart just couldn’t resist hammering it all home. It’s a shame as pulling them back a little, to make it feel a bit more real, would have been more interesting. I wonder if he wasn’t trying to get a broader audience by making fun of the DC pundits with impunity. But, frankly, it only worked for the first few scenes of it… after that it became an SNL skit (with admittedly better writing and timing).

While there is a pile of really solid talent backing up and propping up the rest of the movie, it’s Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) that carry it all home.

The best moments are, frankly, the pre-credit scenes and the end sequences, but you need the middle to get there, even if you have a sense of what’s coming; it is a comedy afterall.

I understand this doesn’t feel like a glowing review, and in ways it isn’t. But the movie is funny. And, more importantly, its points, which carry through the credits, are a call to action. It’s both a love letter and indictment of the current political system. One thing Stewart did very well was to edit it down to a swift 100 minutes so that it rarely overstays its welcome. But, even if you decide to bail on it, watch the short interview that runs during the credits. Understand that the absurd is not only possible, it’s legal. And while this doesn’t have the punch of All In: The Fight for Democracy as a call to action, it should urge you to your feet regardless.

Sometimes Always Never

[4 stars]

Let’s face it, just about anything with Bill Nighy (Emma.) is worth watching just for him. Often it is only a taste of Nighy as a smaller side character. But in this film he and Sam Riley (Radioactive) share this story of family and survivorship. Both men play against their typical type, though Riley is a bit more consistent at it; Nighy’s accent kept slipping. However, both provide endearing and riveting performances as they verbally spar and converse.

The cast is also gifted with Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) and Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) who swirl around the two men with funny and poignant moments. Neither is given full rein, but both have impact and are part of why the film works so well. Even the young Louis Healy helps fill out the film nicely with minimal time.

As a first feature, Carl Hunter directs the tale with a confident hand and a delightfully playful vision. Despite the intense emotions of the story in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) script, Hunter keeps it all quietly real and funny. Also, the design of the film is breathtaking, from the wide vistas, to the distortion from the lenses, to the odd greenscreen and paper puppetry, it’s a unique combination of visuals that serve to amplify the story. Even the color pallet is retimed in order to make it, to put it mildly, bilious.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this story, and that was fine. I’d suggest you do the same. Go for the comedy and the sweet sense of family it creates. Stay for the performances, message, and the wonderfully odd presentation; but make time for this.

Freaks: You’re One of Us (Freaks: Du Bist Eine Von Uns)

[3 stars]

I love that we are looking more and more at the dark side of superhero-dom. Mind you, we’re in danger of getting as swamped with those kinds of movies as we are the more earnest versions. But it’s nice to have some balance.

And Freaks is a bit more than just an anti-superhero tale. It’s a bare philosophical metaphor for mental illness and otherness in general. The argument can be made that almost all superhero stories are about otherness, but they often bury it or ignore it entirely in their stories, leaving it to critics to make the case. Freaks makes it front and center.

Though it is played for honesty, particularly by Cornelia Gröschel in the lead as a struggling, young parent, it drifts into a rather arch confrontation and events. Her counterpart, Tim Oliver Schultz, in particular, spirals pretty far afield from the grounded beginning. The result ends up being more like a TV pilot than a movie. That doesn’t make it bad. It’s very entertaining and relatively well thought-through. The approach does, however, make it less than it could have been.

The TV feel to the overall shape is partially due to director Felix Binder, who’s spent most of his career in the smaller venue and pushing shows. He made a lot of choices that were reflections of that experience. On the other hand, some of the success to the result also goes to writer Marc O. Seng, who wrote several of the episodes for Dark.

Basically, Freaks is a fun distraction for an evening. It trods well-known ground, but finds a way to keep it feeling fresh and provides characters to keep us interested.

The Whistlers (La Gomera)

[4 stars]

Oddball films that really work are hard to find. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Whistlers certainly falls into that category as a delightfully dark comedy that doubles as one of the odder mobster love stories you’ll get to see. It isn’t perfect…in fact I want to slap him around just a bit for not following through on the main conceit, even though he does use it. And, before you ask, yeah, it’s real.

What sets this story apart from so many similar stories of betrayal, dirty cops, and semi-honorable thieves is how the tale is told. Porumboiu fractures the story and tells it with parallel chronologies to make the story as much one of mystery as it is suspense.

Vladimir Ivanov (Toni Erdmann) and Catrinel Marlon (Tale of Tales) are at the center of the story. Ivanov’s even temperament, despite any circumstance, is both amusing and amazing as he sells it every time. And Marlon’s femme fatale approach is both cold and spot on; her sharp intelligence always on display.

The couple are surrounded by a host of interesting supporting characters. Rodica Lazar, in particular, as Ivanov’s boss, is a fascinating and quiet portrayal.

Basically, this is a romp, with dark, Romanian overtones. But is also a comedy, which keeps it all from getting too weighty and uncomfortable. If you haven’t found it yet, and are looking for something a bit different but not too fluffy, this is a good way to go.

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Bloodshot

[3 stars]

For a distracting bit of action silliness, with some potential, this isn’t awful. It isn’t great either, but that has much to do with Jeff Wadlow (Truth or Dare?) and Eric Heisserer’s (Bird Box) somewhat bumpy script more than anything else.

This movie is the poster child for the challenge of where to begin a story. It has a 13 minute lead-in before the credits, which was an immediate alarm bell. Ultimately, I understood their choice, but it didn’t help the credibility of the movie. However, they did manage to get it to hold together, even if the flow of it (and some of the dialogue) were rough. Frankly, given their talent, I was little surprised by the end result.

The center of it all, as if you couldn’t tell, is Vin Diesel (The Fate of the Furious), who’s been searching for a new franchise and chasing the ghost of his first action-(anti)hero Riddick since he broke out. He’s never quite nailed another character that well, even taking Fast and Furious into account. He has the charisma and the attitude to carry this story, but he’s surrounded by uneven performances that range from mustache twirling to outrageous.

In the former group, Sam Heughan (Outlander) is the major offender. Guy Pearce (A Christmas Carol) comes in a close second, but his performance is more nuanced at times. In the latter, though he works in a weird way, is Lamorne Morris (Game Night) thanks to his comedy chops.

I imagine that first-time feature director Dave Wilson (Love, Death, & Robots) thought he could afford the extremes at the edges with Diesel and Eiza González (Paradise Hills) holding it together calmly in the center. He was wrong. It almost worked, but comic book adaptations are a challenge to start, and they only work in earnest. The second you give into the crazy, you distance the audience…unless that is the entire style of your flick.

All that said, I had fun and was entertained. It isn’t brilliant and won’t ever be the franchise Valiant or Diesel hoped for, but it isn’t a total waste of a night if you want a new story or enjoy the actors involved. Just keep the popcorn handy and be prepared to groan a bit till you understand the story… and then groan some more as it tries to wrap it all up.

Project Power

[3.5 stars]

It ain’t perfect, but it is a great ride and tightly put together by Nerve duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. (The two were also responsible for the unexpected docu Catfish.) The story is an alternating tale of high-octane and quiet exchanges tied up in a nice riff on the superhero genre.

While Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Snowden) and Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) top line the movie, and they’re both great in their parts, it’s relative newcomer Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give) who is the spine of the film. She is quietly and wonderfully in control, even when put off-balance. There is a real sense of survival and savvy in the way she talks, moves, and commands the screen. And the woman’s got flow.

The movie also has levels, though unlike See You Yesterday which takes on some of the same societal scope and perspective, this is done in pure earnest. It’s a straight-up sci-fi actioner with all the pluses and minuses that can include. You just have to buy the science and enjoy the silly that ensues. Interestingly, up till this year I would have thought the loose tale that holds it all together with Amy Landecker (Beatriz at Dinner) at the head and Rodrigo Santoro (Focus) as her lackey, was utterly absurd. But, I can’t say that anymore. That isn’t a credit to up-and-comer Mattson Tomlin’s script so much as the timing, but it still works.

For some big screen distraction on your small screen at home, this will do. It’s fun, funny at times, interesting, and set up for sequels without feeling like it was unfinished. It also plays with the comic book sensibilities of the superhero craze in some refreshing ways. No one in this movie is wholly good or evil, even when their goals are laudable or not. Well, OK, the evil are pretty much just evil, but the good guys are a lot grayer than usual. If both sides had been handled that way, it would have been a truly great film, but I’ll take entertaining.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (finale series)

[4 stars]

Ever since Agent Coulson went to TAHITI in The Avengers, his history and his involvement with SHIELD was a deep well of interest. Actually, it really began back with Thor, but we didn’t know what was coming at that time for his character.

Many shows will do a retrospective for their finale, recapping and calling back to the full run of their series. SHIELD did them all one better by taking their entire last season to walk through their history…and remake it even as they paid homage to it. It was a ballsy move, but one well within the parameters they had set up over the previous runs. To their credit, the choices also filled in and answered issues, particularly around the end of last season, which was quite the wild ride in and of itself. But that finale, as fun as it was, felt more than a little forced and manipulated. Now we know why.

Admittedly, the series as a whole itself is uneven, and has more than a few issues over its 7 seasons. But, generally, it was a great ride and fed into a desire for more things Marvel…that were tangential to the massive movie monster that dominated the last 12 years of cinema. It’s highly rewatchable and covers a huge range of styles, plots, and character development. And what more do you want from a genre series? You want to be transported. You want to be surprised. You want to be entertained. And you want characters you can invest in, root for, and root against. It had it all. It also had a wild arc from beginning to end that constantly had me trying to anticipate where they were going, and almost always getting it wrong (at least in the specifics).

I’m sorry to see the show go, but I’m glad it went out on a controlled high-note. And I’m looking forward to start watching it again down the road.

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Black-ish (the unaired episode)

[3.5 stars] (but still a must-see)

Sitcoms rarely wow. In fact, I can’t watch most of what’s on offer anymore as they are so painfully silly. And don’t get me started on laugh-tracks. But every once in a while a series, or a particular show in that series, stands out.

“Please, Baby, Please,” marking the first year of 45’s presidency, was never aired after it was recorded in 2017. The reasons are still shrouded in a bit of mystery, but it seems generally true that it was an act of cowardice on the part of ABC. But it was recently made available as Season 4, episode 99 of Black-ish.

There is no question that this is a clunky and preachy diatribe. But it isn’t an untrue or unfair one, and it has a core of powerful reality and truth…with just a smidge of hope…that makes it worth every moment.

This episode should be seen, especially with the election coming; and one where the first woman of color is on the slate. It is a vote for sanity and a political act…and not a little bit an act of curiosity. But when your government is sending federal troops into states as a political move, and working hard to make sure the upcoming vote will not have credibility, and when they are purposefully hobbling the census to better retain power…and all of this during a pandemic, it is a vote that is sorely needed.

[Addendum: An interview with writer/creator Kenya Barris about the shelving of the episode.]

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