Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

[3 stars]

Girl power should beat out just about anything these days at the box office…in theory at least. Unfortunately, though it is entertaining, this third go-round for the Angels, sheapharded by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn), is unevn and unfocused. The fault is really very much with Banks’s script and her control of the vision. I’ll circle back on this, but I want to be sure to give her cast their due first.

Her current angels were all pretty solid: Kristen Stewart (Lizzie) and Naomi Scott (Aladdin) were paired with relative newcomer (though she held her own well), Ella Balinska. Stewart is the bright spot here, spewing humor and action in equal measure confidently. We never entirely get to know her, but that is by design. She still becomes the glue for the trio and keeps the energy and pace up throughout the story.

Unsurprisingly, the men are in this tale to serve the women’s stories. This makes them all just a bit superficial, though each with moments. Sam Claflin (Their Finest) and Patrick Stewart (The Kid Who Would Be King) are the larger roles. Claflin is a bit broad in his delivery, while Stewart is a bit low in energy to carry his part. Neither is awful, but both could have been directed better.

In smaller, but fun, roles Luis Gerardo Méndez (Murder Mystery), Noah Centineo (To Al the Boys I Loved Before), Jonathan Tucker (Veronika Decides to Die) and Chris Pang (Crazy Rich Asians) really shine for their humor. Each also adds some unspoken depth to their bit parts.

So, back to Banks and her script and directorial choices. The script itself is frustrating in its flow. There are far too many failures and odd decisions for our heroes. The overall intention could have been worked out better and with a few more positives, particularly as Scott’s character is being pulled ever-deeper into the Agency. But that was the minor problem.

The larger issue was one of style. This movie couldn’t settle on whether it was an action movie with humor, a comedy with action, or a broad satire of the series. The first movie and it’s sequel found the  line they wanted to walk and tightroped it much more elegantly. Banks is all over the place and constantly mis-stepping by doing things like cracking jokes about someone who just died rather than allowing the moment to add a darker edge and reality to the fantasy.

It’s clear from the opening that the intention of the movie is to empower women. Charlie’s Angels is tailor made for that intent, but it needed a much stronger hand and a sharper script to succeed. That doesn’t mean this isn’t fun or funny, or even clever and exciting at times, but it whiplashes between intents leaving you unsure of what you’re watching and how best to engage with the story. That keeps you at an unfortunate distance without a chance to fully engage with the women and their triumphs and losses on screen.

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.

Last Christmas

[3 stars]

I know what you’re thinking: It’s damned early in the year for a Christmas movie. And too bloody right you are. However, I am a sucker for a well-done romance. Fortunately, Last Christmas delivers more to the romance with a slightly cynical/amused eye to the holiday. A solid script, co-written by Emma Thompson (Late Night), and direction by Paul Feig (A Simple Favor) give it a leg up with sharp English wit and intelligence amid the holiday sweetness.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Emilia Clarke (Solo: A Star Wars Story) has charisma and wonderful comic timing. She and Henry Golding (A Simple Favor) make a fun, reluctant couple while Clarke builds a family around Michele Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians), Emma Thompson, and Lydia Leonard (Abstentia). There are also some fun cameos from Maxim Baldry (Years and Years), Patti LuPone (Parker), Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick), Peter Mygind, Jade Anouka (Turn Up Charlie) and others.

As a solid date night film, with just enough brains and bittersweet in it to keep it from collapsing under its own weight in sugar, this is a fun outing. And I say that even if it is way too early to be starting the themed stories this year. Though, admittedly, it may well have gotten lost in the crush of tentpoles if they’d waited. Take someone you care about and enjoy being played like the proverbial piano in a way that will leave you warm, happy, and high on life.

Parasite

[4 stars]

Joon-ho Bong (Okja) doesn’t make easy movies, nor does he have a high opinion of humanity. Even when he allows for happiness in his worlds, it is typically for children and in spite of what the reality is around them. Parasite is no exception. It is dark, funny, human, and, above all, a tragic tale of class and identity.

Parasite is, generally, a tale of two families, one with means and one who will do anything to achieve means. The cast is a mix of recognizable and newer faces, assuming you watch Korean films. Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer),  Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi (Okja), and So-dam Park form the main focus, struggling to survive. They collide with Yeo-jeong Jo and her family as well as Jeong-eun Lee (Mother) and Myeong-hoon Park in funny ways that eventually turn pitch black.

But, of course, it is never so simple as it sounds in the description of Joon-ho’s films. Why any of these characters are succeeding or struggling is a matter of debate and perspective. And it all takes place in meticulously designed settings and cinematography that capture the story and subtext.

I know this is running at near 100% on Rotten Tomatos, and from a craft point of view I understand that. As an experience I found it a little more uneven. However, I can see why the movie has won so much attention and awards; but it is more a powerful experience than it is an entertaining or instructive movie. And while not as physcially violent and tackling different issues as the Korean classic, Oldeuboi (Oldboy), it is in many ways just as challenging. Joon-ho has delivered  a pitch-black comedy that is as timely as Joker. And, ultimately, both tackle many of the same aspects of people and society, leaving you breathless. The question is whether your psyche is strong enough to take the journey.

Tickled

[3 stars]

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve take us on a strange and funny journey of investigative journalism. It all starts innocently enough for Farrier, but then things go strange. Then stranger. Then downright bizarre. That I found this movie because of its trailer on Hail Satan? should give you a sense of the tone.

If you like odd tales of humanity with a bit of a mystery twist and a real sense of dark humor, you should make time for this true story. Honestly, it’s just best to dive into it without knowing a thing because, well, it’s just that odd.

Zombieland: Double Tap

[3.5 stars]

Did we really need this sequel? Of course we didn’t, but Ruben Fleischer (Venom) managed to bring back his 2009 hit and carry it off in style nonetheless. From its opening moments through to the final after-credit gift, he is clear that this is just going to be silly fun.

Woody Harrelson (Venom), Jesse Eisenberg (The Hummingbird Project), and Emma Stone (Maniac) return without missing a beat. Abigail Breslin (The Final Girl) is a bit less sure, but she also has a very different challenge retackling her role 10 years down the road; growing up is never straightforward.

Banter abounds and craziness ensues. But don’t be fooled, this is a tight film that fits together wonderfully. The additions of Zoey Deutch (Flower) and Rosario Dawson (Iron Fist) were particularly welcome, while Luke Wilson (Soul Survivors) and Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla: King of Monsters), not my top choices for comedy, add some good fun to the tale.

While this movie isn’t as original as some other zombie comedies out there (see Anna and the Apocalypse), this is the rare sequel that seems to have retained its roots while aging. Double Tap is completely self-aware about what it is and what is expected, and it delivers. If you enjoyed the original Zombieland and are looking for a distraction, this one’s for you.

Booksmart

[1.5 stars]

I really had been looking forward to this movie after all the hype. But either I missed the point, or I’m just not the audience. This was not Lady Bird, Eight Grade, Flower, or any number other coming of age stories. It was basically just The Hangover with kids. And I wasn’t the audience for that either.

Despite a few funny moments, and a great turning point of realization for Beanie Feldstein (The Female Brain), and despite the great work between her and Kaitlyn Dever (We Don’t Belong Here), I couldn’t even watch the whole film. I was bored and unable to suspend disbelief to accept the broad story and characters. It wasn’t just metaphor for the huge feelings of young adulthood, it was an absurdist reimagining of High School and stepping into adulthood.

For a first feature, director Olivia Wilde (Life Itself) showed some solid control and good handling of her charges. This isn’t a classic, or even a good film to my mind, but it isn’t a bad demo real for Wilde. However, the script was a mess and aimed at a small segment of audience. Given that the four writers involved are well grounded in broad sitcom and movie humor, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

I realize your mileage may vary, but this isn’t about gender…I know several women who were also unable to watch the whole thing, and who considered it just as ridiculous and absurd as I did.