Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

Thoroughbreds

[3.5 stars]

In his first script and major directing gig, Cory Finley really delivers. Thoroughbreds is controlled, paced, and loaded with clever sound cues and framing choices. It is magnetic and darkly funny in very unexpected ways. And, also in the most unlikely of ways, it gets you to invest in two sociopaths. There are some echoes with The End of the F***ing World, but Thoroughbreds is more quiet and focused.

A large part of the success of this film is down to the casting; it is  perfect for the purpose. In fact, this is the role that Olivia Cooke deserved to play after having to suffer through Ready Player One. Likewise Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) gets to stretch her acting chops and have some fun in this dark suspense/comedy.

And I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is the last of Anton Yelchin’s film appearances we will be graced with. It isn’t his most groundbreaking role, but it is layered in a way that most actors wouldn’t be able to accomplish with such a character. And, in an odd way, having him appear is a bit ghoulish, but in a good way that reflects on the story.

I was surprised by this film; not just for its solid directing, excellent acting, and brave subject matter, but also for how it kept its energy up to the last frame. Admittedly, you need to be in the mood for this kind of story, but it is surprisingly engaging from the moment it begins right through till the end. Finley’s last frame nails home the story he wants to tell, and those sound cues continue through the final credit roll as well. I’m looking forward to more work from him and the two young actors.

Thoroughbreds

Tragedy Girls

[ 3 stars]

A bit like Heathers gone even a little bit madder, with a touch of Final Girls and any CW show thrown in. Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2) and Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) really take the screen and shake it by the neck with confidence in this very dark comedy; this is their film. I can’t say you are cheering them on through their story, but you do watch with a certain amount of dark glee as they exercise and improve their skills.

The duo are helped along by a few familiar faces and many new ones. Chief among the known supporting cast are Kevin Durand (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and Jack Quaid (Rampage). Durand gets to have a bit of fun, though it isn’t much of a stretch for him. And Quaid gives us a perfect boy-next-door against Hildebrand’s brand of psychosis. There are a host of other familiar faces if you’re looking, and they all help the story succeed, but the movie is really focused around them.

Director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre (Patchwork) slaughters the slasher genre with glee and verve. It isn’t that we haven’t seen similar approaches before, but this one is solid from beginning to end, and probably a bit too raw for a lot of audiences. However, if you like your nearly believable gooey endings with humor, you’ll enjoy the ride of this blood fest. What it has to say about society and current culture, well, that’s a discussion for another day, but certainly one worth having. But for an evening of evil popcorn munching, this is a fun and well-done choice.

Tragedy Girls

Deadpool 2

[4.5 stars]

Despite having one of the best posters and some of the worst cover art (see below) Deadpool 2 is as funny as the first, if not quite as surprising now that we know the shtick. In fact, it might have the highest ratio of referential jokes per minute ever (I’d love to see a counter on the disc when it is released akin to the original Taken’s body count meter).

Ryan Reynolds (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) continues to rip up the screen and unequivocally supply the energy for the film. His returning cast from the original Deadpool have fun as well, though there was far too little of Morena Baccarin  and Leslie Uggams for me. I will say that T.J. Miller lost some of his game this round, though Karan Soni got to up his in some ways. On the other hand, Brianna Hildebrand had a similarly minor role but made more of it this time. And Stefan Kapicic’s Collosus got to have a bit more fun than his last outing.

As much fun as it was to see the old gang strutting their stuff, Zazie Beetz (Geostorm), Shioli Kutsuna (The Outsider), Eddie Marsan (The Limehouse Golem) and a smattering of fun surprise guests provide the real zazz to the remix. And Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) not only delivers, but gets to be part of another of the biggest films this summer; talk about great career choices. And speaking of great choices, perhaps the most surprising addition was Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who is probably very new to most audiences but who proved he could handle a major motion picture leap without blinking.

Reynolds joined Reese and Wernick in writing this sequel, which may explain the extreme density of the jokes, and director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) took the franchise reigns well in this sequel. The overall effect isn’t quite as polished or paced as the original, but it acquits itself well by the end; it just has a rather long setup. And, it should be noted, in Marvel tradition, it has little gifts up through the end of the final credits. They also are continuing another more recent Marvel tradition of wickedly funny (and at times astute) music queues. If I have any real gripe with the script and character it is that Deadpool is still a bit more homophobic than the pansexual, which has more to do with current society than the original material.

So is it all you hoped for? Yes. Is it a worthy sequel? Yes. Does it set up yet more stories? Of course it does. Should you see it on big screen? You bet your red-clad ass. In fact, you may have to see it more than once to catch all the references. Deadpool is the perfect pallet cleanser for the avalanche of serious super hero stories. It reminds us you can have fun and carnage and even a certain amount of intelligence while it is all going on.

 Deadpool 2

Please Stand By

[3 stars]

For all its effort, cast, and moments, this movie never quite achieves liftoff, though it is sweet and panders wonderfully to Trekkies and sci-fi geeks alike. Dakota Fanning (Now is Good) carries the story well and manages to make her performance empowering and a touchstone for anyone who’s felt challenged by the world around them. Her character is also full of enough Trek knowledge to shame the best of us (or embarrass those of us who actually did know some of it to start with).

Toni Collette (Unlocked) and Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness) work alongside Fanning well. Due to the character’s situation, there is little direct collaboration, but it isn’t unemotional. Two small roles worth noting were given life by Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day) and  Patton Oswalt (Freaks of Nature). Neither gets a full storyline, but their scenes are very effective, particularly Oswalt’s.

Michael Golamco (Grimm) adapted his own play for this script. The shift in media is smooth and there is no sense of a stage play lingering in the result. However, the story is somewhat…easy, for lack of a better word. And the timeline, particularly around Eve’s house and choices, is less than clean. However, director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) works well with the cast and the script to make it diverting and fun while still also providing some nice emotional punch. I could feel the movie teetering at the edge of something much better than it achieves, but it is still worth seeing and will leave you with a feeling of positive possibility.

Please Stand By

Tully

[4 stars]

In their first pairing since Juno, director Jason Reitman (Men, Women, Children) and writer Diablo Cody (Ricki and the Flash) yet again bring their A-game to the screen. Tully is a glaringly honest look at being a parent with a newborn. It is also a story of trying to survive seemingly insurmountable odds in life.

Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) last worked with Cody on a story about a different kind of broken woman in Young Adult. Theron, as always, gives herself over to this new character, allowing herself to be as unquaffed and unclean and unpleasant as the story needed at times. It is a great and sympathetic performance that anyone who has felt crushed by life’s events will understand. As her husband, Ron Livingston (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) gets his own interesting path to navigate through this story as well.

Though the two make a solid couple, it is Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) in the title role that pulls it all together. She brings a sort of wonderfully twisted Mary Poppins energy to her night nanny.  She sweeps in and sweeps Theron’s family off their feet, working to put them back on track with a focus on Theron’s needs. It is a challenging role, and one she executes with style and craft.

This isn’t an easy film to classify. It is very much a slice-of-life film, but with a broader impact and with more going on that is very obvious at first. It is also a great piece of film-making that should get a lot more attention as word of mouth spreads (or it certainly deserves to). Be on the watch for this one come awards season, particularly for Theron, Reitman, and Cody.

Tully

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.