Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Dating Amber

[3.5 stars]

The stories we tell don’t change over time, but how we tell them does. And to that point, David Freyne (The Cured) has delivered not so much new ground in this coming-of-age tale, as a new approach. And that makes all the difference.

Fionn O’Shea (Normal People) and Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along the Way) take us through their last year of secondary school which includes personal revelations, experiments, and, eventually, acceptances. Unexpectedly, while told primarily through the scared and challenged O’Shea, Petticrew tends to dominate the screen when she is there. Part of that is the characters, but she also fairly glows with charisma and energy in a way that O’Shea just can’t touch despite his acting chops.

While the two teens dominate the film, there are several smaller performances with depth and impact. Sharon Horgan (Military Wives) has a subtle job as O’Shea’s mother navigating her stressed marriage to Barry Ward (The Fall) and her struggling children. Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall) has a similar challenge as Petticrew’s mother. And, as a bit of running comic relief, Ian O’Reilly (Moone Boy) has some wonderful moments and solid timing.

While set in 1995, this story still applies today because teens have always struggled with accepting themselves and being accepted for who they are. Petticrew and O’Shea tackle their stories with heart and honesty while avoiding most of the ugly that it sometimes causes. But the movie is intended to be on the lighter side, with plenty of warm and funny moments and with an inexorable drive toward joy, however bumpy the road.

You’re probably thinking you don’t need another coming-of-age story, but make time for it. You won’t be disappointed in the film and watching Freyne develop his cinema voice is an extra benefit.

[If you’re looking for some insights after seeing the film, check out these short interviews with Freyne, and this with O’Shea.]

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Uncle Frank

[3.5 stars]

Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) tackles the-truth-in-the-quirky  like Aaron Sorkin tackles the-poetic-in-the-mundane. His string of shows and movies all focus on characters, and the beauty and tragedy of life. This outing, literally and figuratively, he tackles the late 1960s life in NYC and rural South Carolina. Two venues that couldn’t be more different then, or today.

But, as always with Ball, part of what makes his stories work is the incredible talent he gets to inhabit those characters. While the story is about Frank, the title clues you into the point of view, which is led by Sophia Lillis (I Am Not Okay With This) as Frank’s niece. Lillis, again, proves she is not only up to the task of a lead, but is capable of wonderful and subtle emotional range. Her family, including Frank played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Endgame), all orbit around her axis.

Which isn’t to say they are minor or side characters, it is simply that she is the spine around which the whole tale depends. It is her story into which they feed. And it’s a story many will relate to, directly or indirectly. The family is filled out by the likes of Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes), Margot Martindale (The Hollars), Stephen Root (On the Basis of Sex), and Judy Greer (Halloween).

Completing the cast, in what is one of the most complicated and challenging roles, is Peter Macdissi (Towelhead). Bettany and Macdissi have an easy give and take amid the sturm and drang of their lives. But with little explanation, their history feels obvious and real. And their love for one another is equally palpable.

While this is a story of secrets, they aren’t secrets for the audience, generally. The big things are all obvious. It’s how Lillis’s Beth becomes awakened by them, how she grows and changes because of them, and how she learns to see and appreciate things for what they are rather than how she elevated them. In other words, it’s a tale of growing into adulthood and learning to accept yourself and those around you for who they are. It may be a bitter-sweet journey, but this isn’t a tragedy; it’s a heart-warming tale of struggle and triumph. And one I do highly recommend.

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What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

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Ted Lasso

[4 stars]

I can’t believe I’m endorsing this show (it was inspired by an ad campaign, for cryin’ out loud), but I am. I never thought it would be something I could watch; Jason Sudeikis (Colossal), just isn’t my usual cup of tea.

But that’s thing about Ted Lasso, while Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt are earnest and interesting and really sell their characters, it isn’t their show. The story is really about all the people around them, and those actors play it genuinely and beautifully. Hannah Waddingham (Sex Education), Juno Temple (Wonder Wheel), Brett Goldstein (Uncle), Jeremy Swift (Stonewall), and Nick Mohammed (The Martian) bring a host of different stories and reactions to keep you hooked. In fact, the humor is often fall-off-the-couch funny, and the honest moments are, well sometimes the same, but just as often incredibly affecting.

Frankly, I’m not a sports guy. Prior to this, the only series that ever managed to overcome my aversion to sports stories was Sports Night. But Lasso managed some of the same magic…making the story about everything other than the sport involved and getting me to care.

Lasso is already renewed for two more seasons, it’s worth your time and it’s the perfect antidote for the dark and stressful times around us. I just hope they can keep up the story and the writing.

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On the Rocks

[3.5 stars]

Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) may be the the best Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) whisperer out there. She consistently pulls controlled, but emotional performances from the man without diluting his comedy. In this performance, he also comes across as an incredibly capable person, believably highly successful in the world, but with deep rifts of personal issues swimming beneath the surface. And yet, for all the emotional churn, he and the story are funny.

Playing opposite Murray, Rashida Jones (Klaus) is the true heart of the film. A daughter lost in the world she’s created for herself and doubting her own abilities, not to mention her marriage to Marlon Wayans. In what amounts to a sort of dark, farcical comedy she finds her way back to herself and the life she deserves.

Rounding out the cast, and filling in the world are some other wonderful actors. Jessica Henwick (Underwater), Jenny Slate (Hotel Artemis), and a small but fun appearance by Barbara Bain stood out for me.

Coppola’s script is playful, honest, and entertaining. You feel for Jones and her situation, but recognize her issues as well. But Coppola also keeps you wondering till near the end as to what the truth of her situation is. It’s a wonderful balancing act that helps drive the story forward. That said, the venue for her tale is the upper reaches of society again…a world Coppola knows well, but which is out of reach for most of us. It didn’t feel wrong, but it does add a little distance to the situation.

But whatever you think this movie is, you’re probably wrong. It’s sweet, funny, and entertaining while tackling some real aspects of marriage and life. Jones and Murray turn in wonderful performances and Coppola continues to show her strengths and growth as a director and writer. At 90 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.

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Made in Dagenham

[3.5 stars]

OK, yeah, this is very much in the framework of Norma Rae, and full of the same kinds of evolution and moments. But not only is this depiction of female empowerment in 1968 Dagenham true, it brought about real and permanent change to both England and most of the industrialized world (other than the US who still doesn’t have an equal pay law over 50 years later). Not that Rae’s inspiration, Crystal Lee Sutton, didn’t have impact, but it was nothing like this.

Sally Hawkins (Godzilla: King of Monsters) leads the story as an unassuming wife who finds her voice and stands up for, as she puts it, basic rights. The cast is chock full of talent, but it all centers on Hawkins and Daniel Mays’ (The Limehouse Golem) family.

As you’d expect, the rest of the cast is dominated by some great female performers: Rosamund Pike (State of the Union), Geraldine James (Anne (Anne with an E)), Andrea Riseborough (Mandy), and Miranda Richardson (Good Omens) to name a few. However, Bob Hoskins (Hollywoodland) and Richard Schiff (Shock and Awe) are worth mentioning among the male cast, though far from the only good talent.

Dagenham is exactly what you want it to be, with a bit of British grit thrown in. Much like Military Wives or its similar tale in Pride, it allows some real-life to intrude into the retelling. But the bones of the story are true. The timing of my viewing is also actually quite relevant, with the election just days away.

Because it is formulaic, for good and ill, I can’t rate the movie higher as a movie. But director Nigel Cole (Doc Martin, Calendar Girls) gave us a reminder of not only what is possible but also what is still so very wrong; with the US in particular though I’m sure that wasn’t his intention. But it is an uplifting movie, all the more for its honesty and resolution. And it’s a flick you’ll finish with a feeling of empowerment and joy.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

[3 stars]

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s taken ages to get my hands on a copy of this silly romp. Frankly, it was better than I expected; though far from a good film, it was entertaining for its intended audience.

And the intended audience is young. Fortunately, the cast truly committed to the story and, in context, it works just enough to let an adult get through it with a knowing smile. It doesn’t have the edge of Pokemon: Detective Pickachu, but it’s self-conscious enough that you don’t have to groan through it all.

James Marsden (The Female Brain) and Jim Carrey (Kick-Ass 2) really carry the story, though Ben Schwartz’s (Standing Up, Falling Down) Sonic knits it together nicely. Marsden actually outshines them both thanks to his guileless delivery and charisma. Despite the likes of Tika Sumpter (Old Man & the Gun) in the cast, women are notably absent in driving roles.

This is director Jeff Fowler’s first real foray directing. But when you realize he’s working with writing team Pat Casey and Josh Miller, best known for such tightly written gems like Transylmania and Golan, the Insatiable, you gotta cut the guy a break on what he could accomplish.

Basically, this is safe for kids and not boring for adults. It isn’t a great film, but it is a reasonable translation to screen for a game…but that isn’t too high a bar, is it?

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Save Yourselves!

[3 stars]

Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s first feature is a silly romp that, till the end, manages to stay surprising and fresh. It isn’t a new story, nor even a new way to tell the story, but their cast’s slightly abrasive-but-loving relationship makes it work. And their down-to-earth humor keeps it all rolling along.

The oddly matched Sunita Mani (Mr. Robot) and John Reynolds (Stranger Things) work well together, keeping a delightful and playful tension alive through the story. It’s thanks to them, and the light touch of the directors keeping the humor constrained, that movie works at all.

What  Fischer and Wilson didn’t manage to do, however, was provide a complete story. Instead, we have a delightfully long skit that falls apart as it rushes to an end in the final moments. And then…well, there is a pseudo-intellectual wrap-up that explains nothing, comments on little, and leaves our main characters hanging. It borders on a commentary, but because it is so literal and with no clear intent it doesn’t feel like we even got to the punchline of a long joke.

The ride is still fun. And perhaps you’ll glean more from that ending than I did. It’s still an impressive showing in a challenging and overdone genre. Enough so that I’ll be watching to see what any of the four are part of next to see what more they can do.

Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

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Quirky Detectives

[3 stars]

Writing a good plot is only half the entertainment problem for on-screen mystery. The other problem is creating characters we are intrigued by and interested in watching. Sometimes it’s because we are gripped by their struggles or character (Prime Suspect, Vera), but more often we are pulled in by their foibles (Poirot, Morse/Endeavour, Monk). Three relatively new series fall very much in the latter category.

Professor T.

Koen De Bouw (Salamander) is a Belgian riff on Monk, for lack of a better description. But he’s less slapstick and more entertainingly tragic as he navigates the academic and criminal justice worlds. The mysteries are a mixed bag, but mostly just a vehicle for his journey toward healing from an initially unspecified tragedy.  Along with the hysterical Goele Derick as his department administrator, ex-student turned police detective, Ella Leyers, and ex-lover turned police DCI Tanja Oostvogels, along with a bunch of other recurring characters, he unravels suspicious deaths while trying to straighten out his life.

The result is both funny and poignant without getting too broad. It does, however, get more than a little strange in the presentation, as T’s inner life become fantasies that continually intrude on his waking life. It is a visual language and mystery all its own that we get to enjoy and examine as the show unspools. The result is somewhere between a cozy and a hard-core British mystery; never too violent to be uncomfortable nor too sanitized to be boring. And there are plenty of laugh out loud moments to keep it all going.

Bordertown

Like The Bridge, this show tackles cross-border/cross-cultural issues. In this case Finland and Russia. But rather than one long challenge, there are several shorter, multi-part mysteries that scaffold the story of the characters involved with some longer arcs to pull it together. It makes it all more digestible, and we never have to soak too long in any one tale of darkness and misery (hey, it’s Finland).

But because the main character, Ville Virtanen, is so amusingly off-beat, the darkness is counter-balanced and often kept at bay. But Virtanen is only half of the success of the show. Anu Sinisalo, as the ex-FSB turned Finnish cop has her own funny and scary peculiarities. And she sells them well. The two together become the epicenter of the swirling politics and mysteries that invade the smallish Finnish town on the border. The rest of the cast is solid as well, but without these two, it frankly wouldn’t work.

Deadwind

Another Finnish import, and with less of a quirky set of leads as more just broken humans. And, to be honest, somewhat broken writing; police procedure is not their forte. Pihla Viitala (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) unapologetically plays a grieving woman who’s skills as a parent are seriously suspect. What she does have going for her is drive and intuition. One of the nice things that sets this show apart is how the mysteries play out to the last moments of each season. However, getting there is often a lesson in frustration as we watch her step-daughter make one bad choice after another, and her partner ignore the facts and refuse to trust her for far too long. Basically, this is an imperfect but intriguing series. With better writing, they’d be really great, but they really don’t have that yet. Perhaps in the next series.