Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

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.

Game Night

[3.5 stars]

Though an ensemble film, the driving forces in this romp are Jason Bateman (The Family Fang) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange). The two have great chemistry and timing, running the knife edge of comedy, action, and romance. As absurd and predictable as the movie can get, you really care for and cheer on this couple.

Around them are  are a host of, generally, small-screen actors breaking out nicely on the big screen. From Kyle Chandler (Carol), Sharon Horgan (Catastrope), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Lamorne Morris (New Girl), to Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome), there isn’t a performance that doesn’t match the need.

And then there is the outsider Jesse Plemons (Battleship) who has been popping up all over the place these days. Plemons plays a dry and creepy neighbor so over-the-top you almost believe in him. And, finally, there are two smaller amusements with Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter).

While this movie wouldn’t have worked without the comic and dramatic abilities of its cast, the real star is the direction and script that threaded the needle. The co-directors of the much less funny Vacation, John Francis Daley (also known for his turn in Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein, reteamed for this very entertaining farce. Add to it the clever, even when predictable, script by Mark Perez (Accepted) and the team really brought unexpected magic to what could have died up on the screen.

I admit, I wouldn’t have gone to this weren’t it for MoviePass, but it surprised me. I laughed a lot more than I expected and was even surprised at times. I admit, for me Bateman was also a draw. I find his brand of dark humor compelling most of the time, and he certainly entertained on that account. Whether you see this on big or small screen, make time for it when you want an off-color but not tasteless romp with action and humor. You won’t be disappointed.

Game Night

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

[3 stars]

Violence? Check. Dark comedy? Check? Crazy choreography? Check? Bizarre story? Check.

Blade is a manga adaptation (not to mention anime), and the dark humor and violent sensibility of that form are very present; right in director Takashi Miike’s (The Happiness of the Katakuris) wheelhouse. Blade adds another notch in his fluid and prolific opus.

This movie is never going to be a classic, nor is it something I need to see again, but if you enjoy the genre it is a pretty good romp. In some ways it feels like a riff on Kurosawa’s classic re-conceived as The Seven Anti-Samurai.

For a variety of reasons, I had to watch the dubbed version, which was unfortunate. The voices are off and mixed poorly (not unusual). But it is also a workable option once you settle into the story if you don’t want to get whiplash reading the rapid subtitles.

And there is a story, if a somewhat unexplained and unresolved one; it is essentially 2.5 hours of carnage and fighting. Despite the thin veneer, Miike does manage to take all his main characters and explain their actions; at least a little. Morality isn’t nearly as black and white as you think when it starts. But neither is there any really deep musing on the choices or philosophical meaning explored. But did you really expect there to be?

Blade of the Immortal

Maggie’s Plan

[3 stars]

The story of Maggie’s Plan is an odd, modern look at romance and love which somehow manages a sense of the romantic and a jaundiced eye at the same time. It feels wholly unreal and utterly believable given the characters involved.

And it is the characters that make this very NY love story work, not to mention the cast that brought them to life. Ethan Hawke (Maudie) and Julianne Moore (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) are a cantankerous couple who are as much in love with one another as they are frustrated as they pursue careers and raise children. Similarly, Bill Hader (Power Rangers) and Maya Rudolph (Idiocracy) navigate those waters, with a different approach and somehow better results.

But is Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 20th Century Women) who pulls this all together and makes it work. There is something wholly engaging and magnetic about her as an actor, and this performance is no exception. She comes across like real person that has wandered onto the film set and somehow became part of the story.

Maggie’s plan is romantic at its heart, but not in the typical sense. But you can’t leave it without feeling like love is both real and possible. Whether you survive it or not is the bigger question.

Maggie

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Brigsby Bear

[3 stars]

Director,  and fellow SNL alum, Dave McCary took Kyle Mooney (Hello My Name is Doris)  and Kevin Costello’s script and delivered a heart-felt, just slightly off, feel-good comedy about life. The support of Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Greg Kinnear (Stuck in Love) helped give the movie some solid footing as well.

Brigsby is a tale in the spirit of Frank, Room, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and even a bit of The Disaster Artist all rolled into one. The first two thirds of it are wonderful and it had me solidly…before it stumbled. The story recovers from its blunder of bad story choice to accelerate the tale to its finale, but only because I decided to forgive it so that I could enjoy the final third of the film. Short of that moment, it was a delightful and fun bit of silliness with a beating heart you really can’t ignore.

Brigsby Bear

Happy Death Day

[3 stars]

Happy Death Day is an irreverent horror/dark comedy distraction that is actually worth seeing. It has suspense, mystery, comedy, clever writing and a respect for its audience. Sure there are some standard tropes and not an insignificant amount of violence, but it all builds on itself nicely and to a point with plenty of surprises.

Jessica Rothe (La La Land) is both the nasty chick in heels and the heroine of ability; imagine Buffy meets Heathers. But she is also the  butt of the jokes, which Rothe navigates rather well as she grows the character through her ordeals. Helping her along is Israel Broussard (Earth to Echo) serving as a natural counter-point and obvious romantic interest. The two make the perfect unlikely and inevitable couple.

What makes this work even more is that the movie admits you know the base story and keeps subverting it nicely. It is up there with Final Girls for recent horror satires that are still truly horror (unlike Get Out which is surely satire, but still primarily horror). Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell took a tired old trope and really made it sing.

If you like the horror genre at all, this is worth your time. If you enjoy laughing at horror, and can still handle the violence, it is also worth your time. If you want to see something a bit different and that has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, yep, also worth your time. Blumhouse productions continues to do for small budget horror what A24 is doing for indies in general: finding the unusual and getting it to an audience that will appreciate it…even if they don’t know they will till they see it.

Happy Death Day

The Little Hours

[3 stars]

Medieval satire isn’t for everyone. The language, and even the spelling if you’re reading it, are a huge barrier to appreciating the humor. However, when updated, like this take on the Decameron by writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, I Heart Huckabees), it can open up. Why even bother? Well, because it reminds us that people were always just…people, regardless of how they spoke or lived. Life is about desire and survival. And we do still get a sense of the ribald satire, but in a Monty Python sort of approach. Mind you, writer/director Baena keeps it all a little more realistic than Python, putting it in a different category, but there is a similar senses of humor if not the same level of ability.

Aubrey Plaza (The Driftless Area), Kate Micucci (Don’t Think Twice), and Alison Brie (The Disaster Artist), as a trio of waywardish nuns, are entertaining. They each have a different sense of comedy and delivery, which often keeps the jokes from solidly landing, but they still manage to pull out a few belly laughs. Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), as their unwitting center of attention, embraced his role as straight man and and gave them all a great sounding board.

Molly Shannon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), John C. Reilly (Kong: Skull Island), Paul Reiser (Whiplash), and Fred Armisen (Phantom Boy) were all nicely constrained as well, allowing the young women to carry the broader humor.

My favorite dark comedy about convents remains Dark Habits, but this evil little concoction certainly gives it a go. It is a particular kind of humor that won’t fly for everyone, but the story, such as it is, is amusing. I can’t say this is a must seek out and find entertainment, but it is certainly something different for when you might be in the mood.

The Little Hours