Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

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

Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

Product Details

Dave Made a Maze

[3.5 stars]

How do you describe a totally gonzo film? Endlessly inventive seems trite. Perhaps mention the fact that it won the hearts of a dozen film festivals? Or, perhaps, just mention that as director and co-writer, Bill Watterson’s deliver a surprisingly solid movie out of an idea that, in most hands, would have failed; he and Steven Sears’s script is totally absurd (in a good way). Or, maybe, that Watterson, as his first time directing, navigates the cast through the tale genuinely, which keeps it all grounded?

The cast were a game bunch, some of whom you’ll recognize and some you won’t. Nick Thune (Garfunkel & Oats, Bad Johnson) and Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Donny!) are the core of the gang and embody a lot of modern relationship issues, but are clearly committed to one another despite everything. Their friends are a motley crew of abrasive and supportive pals that are recognizable in just about anyone’s life. Adam Busch (Colony), James Urbaniak (The Boxtrolls), Stephanie Allynne (One Mississippi, In a World…), and Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) are principal in those roles. Despite the insanity around them, their performances remain calm and accepting of the insanity and focus on solving the problems.

I don’t want to oversell this film. It isn’t so much that it’s brilliant as that it is surprising. Despite its low budget and crazy ideas, it is funny and, in its way, touching. But it doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It is more a giant metaphor for imagination and artistic desire, or humanity’s drive to build and succeed. But it is definitely worth your time when you want something a bit different and wryly amusing.

Dave Made a Maze

I, Tonya

[3.5 stars]

So can it be dark comedy when it is based on reality, or is that just irony? I have to admit, this film really caught be by surprise. It is funny, sad, and wonderful all at the same time.

As daughter and mother, Margot Robbie (The Legend of Tarzan) and Allison Janney (The Girl on the Train) make an incredible team. Both performances are raw and powerful and worthy of nominations, though Janney really blew it out of the park. Sebastian Stan (The Martian, Captain America: Civil War), as Tonya’s husband, is equally up to the task, though he ends up more of a cipher than Tonya does. And there are a number of smaller parts, like Bobby Cannavale’s (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) that are delightfully spot on.

There are some struggles to the flick. The growing up sequence of Tonya presented some particular problems for the movie. Mckenna Grace (How to Be a Latin Lover), as one of the younger versions of Tonya, deserves a call-out for her efforts here for sure. But Robbie was brought in just a little early for credibility for me, playing Tonya from 15 on up. Robbie can act young and look younger than her years, but not 15. Until Tonya was in her 20s, it was a hard stretch for me, pulling me out of the movie at critical moments.

That said, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) and writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers, Kate & Leopold) tackled this bit of Americana with open eyes and an open heart. Much like The Big Short, the narrative is directed at the audience, and ultimately to a point. There are some great uses of period music as well throughout the movie.

Now the truth is admittedly mutable from the top, but I cannot imagine anyone watching this and not coming away with a different opinion of Harding herself. It doesn’t apologize for her, and she certainly never will, but it re-humanizes her after she was demonized by the media and the culture. Interestingly, the rift between have and have-not and the sense of class structure that pervades figure skating feels like an apt mirror for the country today, making the film both more effective and timely.

If you’re like me, you were going to avoid this movie. Don’t. It really is funny and well done. Ultimately it is more than a bleak comedy, and that trip is worth taking as well. Any bit of art that can make you think or change your mind about something you thought you knew and remembered is worth your couple of hours to experience.

I, Tonya

The Disaster Artist

[3 stars]

Oddly, the reason for this rather good movie is a rather bad one. The Room; a movie so bad it has achieved cult status, raises many questions in your head beyond “how the hell did this thing ever become part of the zeitgeist?” For instance: Is belief in yourself, without self-reflection (or self awareness), an asset to success or not?

The answer to these is hard to tell given the true story behind this quasi-biopic/making of movie. As director and, appropriately enough, star, James Franco (Why Him?) took the reins in this re-enactment/retelling to expose, or maybe explain, the making of the beloved train-wreck. In fact, it is so true to the events, that side-by-side re-enactments of scenes are played just before the credit roll, and the precision is uncanny. Of course writers Neustadter and  Weber (the duo behind The Spectacular Now and The Fault in our Stars) had hours of documentary material and some insiders to help with recreating the events.

Also uncanny is Franco’s performance as Wiseau. It is a skin-crawlingly honest performance of the man; so genuine to its core that it is hard to watch at times. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2), James’s brother, as Wiseau’s best friend turns in an equally powerful effort.

Much like The Room itself, you cannot seem to turn away from the story unfolding on the screen. Franco’s presentation of The Room this film lets you see it as an exposure of raw human longing and desire that Hollywood has instilled into the world culture. And though it feels like it has a fairy tale aspect to it in terms of financing and such, well, that is just part of the true history.

Alongside the Francos, there are many faces you’ll recognize in smaller roles. From Jacki Weaver (Equals) to Zac Efron (The Greatest Showman) and Alison Brie (GLOW) to Ari Gaynor (Wiener-Dog). Even Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) and Megan Mullally (Why Him?) have some good story lines.

So a moment about The Room itself. Sadly, I can honestly say it still isn’t the worst film I’ve seen. That dubious prize goes to either The FP or Highlander: The Source. But make no mistake, The Room is bad. Awful, in fact. It is full of cliches, bad porn styling, and a level of misogyny that is utterly breath taking. The Room isn’t inadvertently funny enough nor so bad that it requires the cult following it has spawned, but who can understand what drives pop culture? Seriously, seeing it once is more than enough, why do it again and again?  But you don’t have to have seen The Room to appreciate Disaster Artist. You get everything you need to know on screen.

But, more importantly, you ask, is The Disaster Artist, unlike its inciting roots, a good movie? Well, it is certainly well put together and faithful to its subject in tone and presentation. It pulls you in, sometimes through pure jaw-dropping lack of belief, but it does and it doesn’t let you go. And it does it with love and respect for its subjects. It is certainly a unique story and one that has left an indelible mark on Hollywood and the culture. But it is also painful to watch, like watching a small child getting hurt learning to walk or make its way in the world. Or, worse, watching old films of yourself as a young kid in a room full of your adult friends.

So enter into this with a sense of humility and a sense of humor. And ask yourself: If you had to choose, would you pick infamy over obscurity? My question isn’t the driving choice, or even intent, of Disaster Artist, but it certainly leaves you with that question as well. But it is Weaver’s character who gets to state the driving factors behind this oddity from an industry point of view. She sums it all up in a single sentence for us and the characters around her. Though, I would say that in a broader sense it is really about humanity and the desire for a connection.

Watch this at some point. Laugh and cringe, but definitely appreciate the effort that went into this docudrama. It feels effortlessly real, which is about one of the hardest things to do on screen. And expect to see Franco nominated for his Wiseau performance; it is unforgettably spooky.

The Disaster Artist

Downsizing

[4 stars]

First off, what you have to know is that Downsizing isn’t the light comedy the ads and trailers have been suggesting. Funny? Yes, but dark comedy at best. And, sure, it is a seriously good social satire straight out of the Golden Age of science fiction.  But, at its heart, it is a tale of self-discovery and humanity more than anything else. Like director and co-writer Alexander Payne’s previous film gem, Nebraska, the focus this sprawling landscape and tale is really an individual learning to navigate himself and the world.

Matt Damon’s (The Great Wall) journey is heartbreakingly compelling and easy to identify with, like all of Payne’s main characters. Through Damon we learn the new world. And it is a world populated with some interesting characters, in a broadly aware Upstairs/Downstairs sort of way.

Most notably is Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) who sweeps onto the screen, grabs it, and shakes it till the end of the final reel. It is a performance that is getting a lot of deserved notice. If Damon’s performance is getting less applause, it is because Payne makes Damon into both main character and catalyst, observer and actor. He doesn’t allow him to become a full-fledged person until the very last frame.

While Hong is a powerhouse, she is also about the only real female influence in the cast. The rest of the supporting cast, each solid in their own way, are men: Rolf Lassgård (A Man Called Ove), Christoph Waltz (The Legend of Tarzan) and, as a delightful surprise, Udo Kier (Nymphomaniac). Each of them provides influence, points of view, and choices in Damon’s world. There are also a slew of bit roles and cameos throughout.

Payne, and oft-time co-writer Jim Taylor, put in some serious effort to think through the ideas of Downsizing. They approached the world as another one of the main characters and really put effort into considering how the events would change the world in a real way. Unlike other general release satires, like Idiocracy, Downsizing is intended to be a believable and natural outcome of the world impacted by one significant event: miniaturization made possible. The effort shows and makes the story all that more effective, especially with the wonderfully subtle production design and special effects.

Downsizing is likely going to disappoint a lot of people, and surprise many more. Opening weekend is almost certainly aimed at the wrong audience thanks to the ad campaign, but I suspect it will find its viewers by word of mouth fairly quickly. It is a wonderfully done piece delivered at the right time for its message. And, as always with Payne, it is handled with emotional surety and care. You can’t see this film and not hear the questions it raises on both a global and personal scale. Admittedly, there are more questions than answers. But it is, ultimately, a personally positive message.

If you want something with a bit more meat on it than the typical holiday fare, this is certainly a good option. Ignore the trailers and what you think you know about it and go with the flow when the movie begins. The opening 15 minutes set the tone for the rest of what’s to come, and it is great two hours that follow. But whether you see it now or later, see it eventually.

Downsizing