Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Wiener-Dog

Seriously, WTF? I watched this entire film in the hope that it would eventually come together as something…anything. I was to be disappointed and annoyed.

Director/writer Todd Solondz had no sense of when to stop a joke (and I use that term loosely) nor much humanity. Because he is also the writer/director of the brilliant Welcome to the Dollhouse and equally brilliant, but horrific, Happiness, perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised with the darkness of it all. But in this case, I have no idea what he was hoping to get across, whereas his earlier work was challenging (to say the least), but ultimately with substance.

I think the intent was dark humor with the dog as the forced thread for the vignettes. However, the first half of the film is about the same dog going from owner to owner (a lot like a cruel A Dog’s Purpose). Then we get an amusing and jarring “intermission” followed by stand-alone tales that have similar dogs in them, but with almost no purpose. It is even somewhat weirdly self-referential regarding film. Add to this the flat delivery of the dialogue, clearly consistent and a choice, and I’m left bereft of a clue. Perhaps it was intended as a post-modernist take on Brecht? Still, it just didn’t work.

Honestly, this is a waste of your time and of any film or hard disc it was filmed to. I honestly don’t forgive Solondz for wasting my time on this one.

Wiener-Dog

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) dominates this film with a quiet surety and great craft. Much like Tomlin’s turn in Grandma, MacLaine slowly peels back layers of Harriet such that we eventually understand and embrace all of her. Amanda Seyfried (The Big Wedding) keeps up with MacLaine nicely, though it takes some time for her character to settle in on screen. It should also be noted that in her first film, AnnJewel Lee Dixon delivers a firecracker of a performance that bodes well for her career.

As a movie, Word is entertaining, if a bit manipulated. Given that this was also a first feature movie for both director Pellington and writer Fink, it is actually rather impressive. The weaknesses likely stem from Pellington’s TV background, where he stole overused tropes as shorthand to get to moments. But that is a small disparagement for the amusement and emotional tale that is Last Word.

This is a story of life lessons and mottoes with a bit of humor and and a few truly winning moments. It is also a great reminder of where women have come from in the last 70 years and what they had to do in order to pave the way; timely given current society and the recent release of Wonder Woman.

The Last Word

Ikiru (To Live)

What is a life worth living? What is a life well-lived?  Akira Kurosawa tackles these questions through the life of a mid-level bureaucrat in 1950s Japan with his trademark patience and dark humor. From the start, Kuraosawa makes sure that while the subject may be deep, you aren’t taking it too seriously. His intent is to nudge rather than hit you upside the head.

Takashi Shimura drives this film in the main role. It is one of the most unpresupposing performances I’ve seen. We watch him literally open up and flower as the film goes on. There are few “big” moments, but several small, intense events that awaken in Shimura’s character a need to live. But is isn’t just the character journey that has impact. The overall structure of the narrative is just as intriguing as the story itself, unfolding in unexpected but necessary ways. If it weren’t for Kurosawa’s inventiveness, the 2.5 hours would have suffocated under its own weight. Instead, he manages to keep us intrigued through fearless storytelling, probably informed a little by his previous foray into narrative structure in Rashomon just two years previous.

Ikiru also marked Kurosawa’s moment before Seven Samurai and some of his most lasting cinema. Kurosawa, as a writer and director, has created and influenced some of the top films and directors of all time (including Star Wars via The Hidden Fortress). There is a beauty to his stories and craft, but never a moment when he insults his audience. His films are about his characters and their troubles and challenges… they just happen to also provide inspiration and commiseration for the viewer. Ikiru is a beautifully funny and heart-warming part of that opus that can still inspire 65 years after its release.

Ikiru

Beyond the Edge

I will say this for Beyond the Edge, in a large field of movies about this subject, this one remained interesting up till near the end. At that point, it all goes just a bit weird and confusing as it tries to represent the concepts in question. I really think this is a tale that would have fared better as a short story rather than as a movie. Trying to depict quantum/existential concepts in film is like trying to clearly depict a 9 dimensional object on the 2 dimensional plane of a piece of paper. Only Mr. Nobody really succeeded for me in recent memory, but I still give this one props for trying.

First time director and co-writer Zellen probably should have tackled something a bit less complex for his first outing. The result wasn’t unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying. I will say that the effects, design, and some of the moments were impressive for a low-budget indie.

To be fair, when one of your main actors is a massive B-Movie face, Casper Van Dien, and you even have Adrienne Barbeau showing up, you know it is also a little tongue-in-cheek by design. Van Dien knows this and really has some fun with his role. (And, yes, I’m aware that Van Dien also has some solid credits.) So does Sean Maher (Firefly) playing opposite him. Maher has the harder job of the two and manages fairly well. However, since so much is not clarified, it isn’t easy to judge all of his efforts.

Overall, there are some interesting aspects and a good tackle at a challenging subject. For a rainy Saturday, or if you’re totally at loose ends for a choice, go for it. Otherwise, well, I wouldn’t say I want my two hours back, but I probably could have made a stronger selection. I will say that I’d watch for Zellen in the future to see what he has learned and what he comes up with next. It took guts to do this film and do it as well as he did.

Beyond the Edge

Colossal

You owe yourself this film before the summer movie scene, full of visual gluttony and silly distraction, kicks off in a couple weeks. It isn’t that I won’t be lining up for some of those films too, but Colossal is a wonderful, small film with layers and humor and some effects to boot. Nacho Vigalondo, who also brought us the unexpected and wonderful Timecrimes, wrote and directed this darkish look at ourselves. He clearly has a sharp eye and a wicked keyboard as he pulls together his stories. (BTW, if you haven’t yet found Timecrimes yet, do. Great fun!)

Script and story aside, without Anne Hathaway (Alice Through the Looking Glass) this film would have been significantly less than it is. Hathaway navigates the narrow line she has to walk brilliantly. It could have easily devolved into slapstick or horror, but she found the border between Kaiju and intimate, personal tale and balanced on it to the end.

Opposite her, Jason Sudeikis (Angry Birds) does a nice job balancing out Hathaway’s character, having his own issues to contend with. Along with his retinue of Tim Blake Nelson (Fantastic Four) and Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies), many mirrors are held up and struggles revealed. Rounding out the cast and necessary complications, Dan Stevens (Legion) also provides a sounding board for Hathaway.

This isn’t an Oscar worthy film or a Pulitzer prize winning script, but it is clever, complicated, and complete, each cog finally fitting together. More subtle, are the choices and decisions that bring about the finale. Though it is not nearly as Byzantine as Timecrimes, Vigalondo was very careful in the structure of this film. It’s very unexpected nature and solid delivery have me rating it a tad higher than it probably deserves, but I love being happily surprised.

Enough said. Just go out and see and support this one before all the sugar of the summer rots your brain.

Colossal

Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade (Everyone Else) likes to write and direct tales that are more character study than story. Toni Erdmann is no exception. It is also no exception that this odd, dark comedy was well recognized around the world, including at the Oscars, this year. Ade has a host of nominations and awards for her rather small opus.

Erdmann examines the lives of a father and daughter at a moment of crisis. Not a loud crisis, but a quiet, internal one. The movie takes its time…really takes its time. The film takes 160 min. to expose their relationship and their drives, but somehow maintains your interest. It is punctuated by hilarious moments interspersed with odd and painful ones that slowly build a rhythm and understanding. It earns its last 20 minutes having built the foundation. Its final moments, much like the rest of the film, returns to the more contemplative, which may leave you scratching your head but, at least in my case, not unsatisfied.

There is a large cast of odd, supporting characters, but the tale focuses on Sandra Hüller (Requiem) and Peter Simonischek. These two are adept at dry delivery and quiet communication. There is a history between father and daughter that we never see or hear about, but which we infer through the decisions and actions that occur. They make a great pairing, though barely seem to get along when on screen most of the time.

I admit, this is not the film I thought it was. I had expected a broader comedy based on the chatter and trailers. I do wonder how the American remake will fare and what changes will be imposed, particularly with the pace of the tale. It has more a sense of A Man Called Ove but with even less overt energy from score or action. But it is a movie full of meaning and suggestion. That is also makes us laugh at times is part of its charm.

Toni Erdmann

Boy

I’ve been rolling somewhat backwards through Taika Watiti’s (What We Do in the Shadows) films. This early film of his is only his second feature, but it still displays his incredible ability to balance comedy and truth. More so, it is told deftly in the language of a child, through Boy’s eyes. It is easy to see this and expect something like last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople down the road.

Boy is emotionally raw and certainly not a high fidelity movie. It is about growing up and accepting responsibility. It is also about what happens to you when you have responsibility thrust upon you too early (or too late). It is painfully funny at times, with scenes from childhood that transcend continents and moments of unavoidable tragedy due to choices.

It isn’t a brilliant film, but it is effective, well done, and well recognized. If you are getting to know Waititi’s work, you need to see it. You also get a sense of Waititi’s casting ability. In the lead, and his first role, James Rollerston (The Dark Horse) was an incredible find in a young man. And Rachel House (Moana) was already becoming a staple for Waititi’s casts. Be aware, the mealy mouthed New Zealand accent will be a challenge at times unless you’ve got an ear for it.

This early example of his work only whets my appetite for what he can bring to a big budget film with Thor: Ragnarok, coming later this year. His sense of family and comedy could drive a whole new view to that universe. So, yes, do see Boy, but it isn’t going anywhere, so you can queue it up for later.

Boy

If I Were You

Romantic farce is difficult to pull off along with dark comedy. Very difficult. The story and the actors have to ride the line of credibility and the absurd and never fall off in one direction or the other. When it works it is, often, great. When it doesn’t, it is painful to watch. I’ve rated this a bit higher than I should mainly because writer/director Joan Carr-Wiggin pulled it off, even if it isn’t perfect.

However, while there are weaknesses in the movie, Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma) is not one of them. Harden’s often subtle performance is a near tour de force; it is certainly brilliant comedy and acting. She takes an impossible premise and makes you believe her choices and actions. Within the first 5 minutes you’ll realize just what a Herculean feat that is.

Which is also to say that the less you know of the story, the better. Don’t read the blurbs. If you like romance and comedy, just get your hands on a copy and enjoy. There is great fun in the surprises as the story spins out of bounds before pulling it all back together.

There is a competent cast supporting Harden, but they are mostly foils for her efforts. Even Leonor Watling (The Oxford Murders), who is her ostensible partner-in-crime, exists for Harden to work with and against. The one exception is Aidan Quinn (Elementary). His character is designed to be part of, but outside the chaos and Carr-Wiggin guided him well in that aspect.

Make time for this one when you’re in a silly or sappy mood (it really works either way). And watch it with someone; it deserves a shared response.

If I Were You

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kôfuku)

After being pleasantly surprised by The Bird People in China, I was curious to see this other Takashi Miike directed tale. Described as “Sound of Music meets Dawn of the Dead,” how could I resist? The result, however, did not leave me intrigued me enough to continuing digging much more into his more offbeat opus. To be clear, it has nothing in common with either of those seminal films on any level, it was just empty marketing hype.

So to the movie itself. Bizarre is a kind word for this odd musical. It starts off amusingly enough, strangely, but amusingly with a claymation sequence that attempts to set the theme of what is to come. And then… well, imagine an amateur musical production of a black comedy with a cast that can neither sing nor dance. Add to this that the entire plot is really about this family coming together, except there is no sense of connectedness between them at all. It is a broad black comedy, which probably isn’t helping on that count, but neither does it succeed. On an individual level, it is supposed to be about finding happiness by, for lack of a better way to put it, playing through the pain and not getting lost in the past.

The first two thirds of the film is essentially episodic, but with little more plot than an escalating sense of the absurd. There is one truly effective sequence, also on theme, in a toxic dump that sends up echos of WWII in a funny but scathing way. I’m not entirely sure it belonged in this tale, but I think I understand why it was there.

Claymation plays into the action a few more times, usually to keep costs for f/x down (this according to Miike), and they are strangely effective. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t all come together. The film and tale just spin off into a final statement that is, again, on point, but baffling from a story point of view. None of the frames, from beginning to end, come back together; neither the opening sequence, nor the voice-over purpose of the youngest Katakuri who narrates.

I will say that the disc appears to have an excellent dubbed translation of the commentary by director Miike… though there isn’t nearly enough substance to it to make it the sole reason you watch. I turned it on to see if, maybe, perhaps, I could get some insights that would help me understand what I’d just seen. There were definitely a few clarifications, but the rest was meandering and, frankly, stuff I’d already sussed.

Miike is prolific, with over 100 films to his name. At this point, I’ll wait for explicit recommendations before I pick up others. When he delivers, he really delivers, but with that kind of output, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that at least some of them are duds. Personally, I’d skip this unless you area  Miike freak or know and like the source Korean film that it is loosely based on.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

20th Century Women

Writer/director Mike Mills brings a love to his characters and their stories that feels both honest and comforting, if not always easy. His previous film, Beginners tackled a family from, distinctly, the male side of things. This latest movie tackles family from the female, even though a young man remains at its core: the very talented Lucas Jade Zumann (Sinister 2).

Zumann’s 15-year-old is a canvass upon which the three women in his life paint and shape his course. It is Zumann’s job to absorb these lessons and accrete them into his performance, which he does admirably. He also gives just as much back with an ability that belies his years, but somehow retains the naivete that speaks to his character’s experience and age.

So let’s talk about these strong and complex women. First and foremost it is Annette Bening (Ginger & Rosa) as his mother who holds together this odd collective of people in 1979 Santa Barbara. Much like her equally great turn in The Kids are All Right, she stands as the matriarch of a self-made family trying to do right by everyone and just as often missing as hitting the mark, but ultimately surviving all of it. Helping Bening are Elle Fanning (Neon Demon) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha). Both deliver equally fantastic and complex performances, making this a very powerful triumvirate and an entirely entertaining and moving film.

There is another male of note around the edges of the movie, Billy Crudup (Jackie). His character is important, but not central. But like all of his performances, it is suggests quiet depths and an intensity just below the chiseled surface of his mien.

Mills chose a particularly interesting point in history to set the tale. He created a woman in Bening that survived the depression and WWII, learning much about her capabilities, but still swaddled by cultural expectations. There is a particularly poignant moment of the entire cast sitting around the television watching a political speech that crystallizes the differences in the generations in the house as the country moved into the Regan years; all the more cogent given this shifts this past election. But politics isn’t the key here, it is society and personal experience.

There isn’t a character in this film that doesn’t have a lot going on and whom we both get annoyed with and cheer for. It is a wonderful juggling act, full of humor and not a few reminders of what it is like to grow up… even as an adult.

20th Century Women