Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

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Happy Accidents

[3.5 stars]

One of the joys of this film is that it plays directly into the need for love to matter. Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m a hopeless romantic, so that is going to play well for me. Also, it has a great deal of sadly accurate fun with NYC dating and living.

Marissa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) make the unlikeliest of pairs, but they make it work. You believe in the ineffable attraction and the unbridled passion that drives the two of them together, even if you don’t understand it. Both players have complicated histories and manage that rough hulled vulnerability that they are known for.

There are some great supporting roles as well. Holland Taylor (D.E.B.S.) does something just a bit different for her typical characters. And Nadia Dajani gets to do a bit more than here typical TV supporting roles. But, as Tomei’s mother, it was Tovah Feldshuh who really got to make an impact, with very little screen time; she is a wonderful study in restraint.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (The Call) is no stranger to the odd. His previous Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist each have elements you can see him developing further with this offering. While Anderson spends most of his time on TV projects, his screen projects always seem to hit a decent mark. He loves his characters, which saves them, or at least redeems them in some way, for us regardless of their circumstances.

Happy Accidents is one of those curl-up-on-the-couch films with someone to enjoy the ride and message. It isn’t a simple and easy romance, but it has its impact and some good performances from actors earlier in their careers. It also gives you a chance to see a new and different facet of Anderson’s work.

Happy Accidents

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

[3 stars]

Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) wrote and directed this  deceptively simple, and highly awarded, story about family several years back. I say “deceptively” because there are layers to this story that are unavoidable, even if they aren’t Assayas’s main focus.

On the surface we have Edith Scob (Holy Motors) as the matriarch of a modern, dispersed family admitting and dealing with her mortality. The frank recognition of her family’s real trajectories and the “residue of the past” in the form of her house and art collection, is both honest and saddening. What she really thinks of the realities is part of what we want to know and part of what at least one of her children, Charles Berling (Elle), must contend with. Also, as the oldest, he must balance his sib’s reactions and desires. Juliet Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) and Jérémie Renier (In Bruges) balance him nicely, hinting at a deep history and long-standing disagreements that they’ve all somehow managed to balance in order to keep their relationships.

But on a deeper level, and sometimes a bit too spelled out, is the deconstruction of the collection from its human surrounds. We watch art become isolated and are forced to question the value of possessions and its meaning, absent people around it. This is true for the collection as well as the family house. While the interactions and story are certainly engaging, it was this aspect of the tale that I found most intriguing, though I wish it had been a bit subtler in the dialogue.

But Assayas wanted to focus on a different story. He was taken more with the generational aspect of life. How do things, ideas, and memories get handed down from the elders to the children. What form does that take and how does it happen? Basically, how does familial history get formed and preserved, and should it or does it need to. He explores this in various ways and to unequal effect. But the story pulls you along far enough before it simply drops you to consider life on your own. Beautifully filmed and nicely acted, it is an interlude worth the time.

Summer Hours

Oh, Hello

[2 stars]

When you are the target audience for a bit of satirical comedy and it leaves you nonplussed, it isn’t a great sign.  Oh, Hello is an ironic poison pen letter to New York theatre. Or, if not poison pen, certainly with more than a little bit of ire and frustration. And I do say this as their target audience, based on the subject matter (NYC living and the theater/entertainment world).

Honestly, I just found it mean-spirited and relatively uninspired in its message. With the exception of a couple cameos, it wasn’t even all that funny. Nick Kroll (Sing) and John Mulaney (Documentary Now!) are only marginally decent at playing older men, not that they are intended to be realistic. But the script is just, well, boring. It takes a half hour for the setup to complete so that the jokes can start paying off. But they don’t continue. There are side stories and sophomoric silliness and absurdities and a ton of inside jokes that would leave most people scratching their heads.

I’m sure there is an audience for this; it isn’t entirely unenjoyable. As part of my Netflix subscription it was favorably priced for its value, but I am glad I didn’t spend Broadway prices (or anything in addition) to see it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The Hippopotamus

[4 stars]

A delightfully weird, wonderful, and often unpredictable comedy cum drawing room mystery. Based on a Stephen Fry (Love & Friendship) novel, you can be sure it is irreverent and witty with a keen social eye and few boundaries. It attacks art, society, family, and religion with equal and unapologetic measure, but with an oddly optimistic sensibility to the human condition. Oh, and it’s funny. Very funny.

Roger Allam (The Lady in the Van), in a send-up of Fry’s own persona, leads the story as the critical observer and assigned debunker of certain “events.” He carries the broad comedy and erudite demeanor beautifully.

Along with Allam are a host of players. Of note are Emily Berrington (Humans), Fiona Shaw (Emerald City), Tim McInnerny (Eddie the Eagle),  and Tommy Knight (Sarah Jane Adventures). They are far from alone, but they were the stand-outs for me. 

The dialogue is delightful, the satire sharp, and the humanity, ultimately, bruised, vulnerable, and triumphant in its way. It is definitely dark comedy, but with a beating heart. You’ll know early on if it is a movie for you, so you don’t have much to lose by giving it 10 minutes to convince you. I had a great time with it and look forward to watching it again as I’m sure I missed some great exchanges because I was still laughing at others.

As a side note, there is a serious sort of critical overtone to the tale, despite all the amusement. It is indicated in the title (from a TS Eliot poem), a reference made clear in the opening, but still required some look-up to fully appreciate. With or without that additional layer, the movie is far from vague and the result very entertaining.

The Hippopotamus

Free Fire

[2 stars] So, if Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino had a co-production to recreate the Black Knight of The Holy Grail as a heist gone wrong, you’d get Free Fire. This is an almost ceaselessly vulgar and violent confrontation at (of course) a gun sale gone wrong. Whether that is a good thing for you or not, is going to be a matter of mood and taste.

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley reteamed with his High-Rise writer, Amy Jump, to bring this blood-fest to screen. The humor is dark and just as often missed the mark as hit it. On the other hand, the sound effects and engineering are really quite amazing. The biggest directing mistake Wheatley made was never giving us an overhead shot of the participants making their way around the killing field. It would have helped a little with the geography of the fight if folks were more easily located.

At the extreme end of the characters are Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Neither plays a believable character, but they certainly do so with abandon. It is the combination of both of them that is the excuse for the mayhem that follows.

As basic tough guys Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), Noah Taylor (Deep Water), Babou Ceesay (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Michael Smiley (Luther) fill out the gangs. Each feels a bit like stock characters, but none are overly empty of interest.

But the two that really stand out as characters for me were Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island). Each clearly has another life somewhere and all manner of things going on under the surface that we never get to understand, but which make their performances interesting rather than just loud.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a film for the weak of stomach or with sensitive hearing (language or gunfire). It, frankly, isn’t a very good film either, but it certainly will have its audience. I did laugh, on occasion, and winced a great deal through moments…even cheered once or twice quietly inside at the demise of a character or two. But there is little story and little to recommend. It is a vignette drawn out in loving detail for 90 minutes of lead filled hell. If that’s for you, then go for it, but there are plenty of better bullet strewn extravaganzas that actually have characters and plots you can latch onto.

Free Fire

The Lovers

So often, tales like this become overwrought or overplayed. But this film really tries to keep it all contained, much like the exhausted relationship of the main characters that has reached a failure (as opposed to a breaking) point. Debra Winger (The Ranch) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) turn in wonderfully understated and nuanced performances in what is really an odd and amusing farce about love.

In fact the only people who over-react in the film are the supporting characters: Aidan Gillen (Sing Street), Melora Walters (Big Love), and Tyler Ross (The Killing).  There is also a nicely balanced turn by Jessica Sula (Split).

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) really captured the age and sensibility of a long-term relationship that has drifted. More importantly, he did all of this without a syrupy sense of reality. He has a sense of the absurd, as does life, but he stays grounded in reality and honest to the story.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the film, which way it would go and whether or not I’d even like the characters. But every one of them manages to gain just a bit of your sympathy, though not a lot in some cases. And the structure of the story is in itself a fun piece of commentary. I suspect it makes more sense the older you are, but the performances alone are really worth your time.

The Lovers

Wilson

It’s a good idea to be in a relatively good mood before you sit down for this disturbing, little flick. It is funny, in its way, but it is also a sort of dark Forrest Gump. Wood Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) delivers a curmudgeon you can almost understand. Unlike similar kinds of stories, like St. Vincent, the path for the main character is less sure and not entirely uplifting.

Moving along his trail of tears and cheers is a collection of oddly broken women including Laura Dern (99 Homes), Judy Greer (Men, Women, Children),  Cheryl Hines (Nine Lives), and relative newcomer Isabella Amara (Spider-Man: Homecoming). 

There are some dark laughs to be had as Wilson navigates his life with wide open eyes and and an even larger open mouth. But it is just as often painful. I think director Craig Johnson’s (Skeleton Twins) control of first-time script writer Daniel Clowes was solid and there was no residual sense of its graphic novel roots, other than the left turns in the plot. When you have the urge for a story that is more true to life than true to Lifetime, this may do.

Wilson