Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

I Am Not Okay With This

[3.5 stars]

This odd, 7-episode season inhabits a fun place in the streaming pantheon somewhere between Heros and The End of the F***ing World. Frankly, if it had done more than just barely set things up for the next series I would have rated it quite a bit higher, but little is resolved by the end and far too little really happens to make it feel complete.

That said, the journey is really quite a bit of unexpected fun. Sophia Lillis (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) continues to expand her range and work on her delivery. She is magnetic and quirkily charismatic as she negotiates her High School and evolving powers. Joined by fellow It alum, Wyatt Oleff, we see well into the lives of their families, often without having to see it explicitly. The work by creator/director Jonathan Entwistle (The End of the F***ing World) to expose by inference and off-screen action is one of the more powerful aspects to the show: the implied, the hidden.

Sofia Bryant (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) adds both bridge and irritant to the relationship of the main characters, and access to the other cliques at the school. The three, together, form an odd set of bonds and uneasy relationships that typify late teen years…especially those who are more self-aware.

Entwistle has a solid vision and ability to navigate  heightened truth and make it feel utterly imperative and real. In other words, he can tap his inner teen really, really well. This slightly less offensive (by typical standards) series show he’s also getting more savvy in his content pics without compromising his desire to live at the edge. I’m curious to see where he takes this, as his follow-up series to The End of the F***ing World really didn’t sustain its impact and unique qualities. But this has more potential and more of an open-ended tale, so I’ve hope.

I Am Not Okay with This

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

[3 stars]

Argentinian writer/director Damián Szifron clearly has a lot of unresolved issues and a very dark sense of humor. Wild Tales is an anthology of revenge and justice tales, with each segment done well and just about the right length to keep you interested without getting itchy.

There aren’t many recognizable faces unless you watch a lot of South American cinema. Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes) in Bombita is one of the exceptions. He has had a lot of international exposure and delivers his role with exceedingly tight control. And, in the final scenario, Erica Rivas and Diego Gentile take us on a crazy wedding night adventure that manages to let you leave the film chuckling in a bittersweet way.

This is not a simple black comedy. It’s loaded with all manner of commentary about people, society, government, and the general nature of the universe. And while a number of the situations are cringe-worthy, it manages remain entertaining…if you’re in the right mood.

Little Monsters

[3.5 stars]

While living through a pandemic, what more do you want than a comedy about one? Writer/director Abe Forsythe’s evil little dark comedy is a wonderful distraction from both reality and the deluge of zombie flicks that continue to arrive. Each of those movies has their own charm, from the dry The Dead Don’t Die, to the musical Anna and the Apocalypse, to the millenial Zombieland, but even with movies more similar, like Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, this movie has chops and reasons worth watching it for.

Primarily, it has a couple truly serious sets of chops in the cast. The first is Lupita Nyong’o (Us). She brings a strength and commitment to the tale like the incredible actor that she is. She swings from kindergarten teacher to shovel wielding dervish on a dime, and does it often while providing a smile or a song. And if you ever wanted to see Olaf get down and dirty, Josh Gad, (A Dog’s Purpose) as a churlish and trash-talking children’s performer, is the ticket.

In truth, Alexander England (Alien: Covenant) is actually the lead in this movie. And he’s fine. Brash and childish, but with a good heart and the ability to change. But he’s completely overshadowed by Nyong’o when they’re on screen. And that’s OK. He makes a great straight-man to her foil.

But beyond the cast, the story, though slow to set foundation, has a wicked sense of humor and solid control of its moments. It is laugh-out-loud funny, but with enough over-the-top splatter (a la Shaun of the Dead) to meet everyone’s needs. Well most people’s anyways. There are certainly some gaps and gaffs, but it beautifully skewers the genre, even while making a movie that’s comfortably part of the fold.

So, for some escapist dark comedy with blood and music, find this one and make an evening of it. I had a riot with it.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

[2.5 stars]

Such promise and such lost opportunities. And what a waste of wonderful production design. I had such hopes for this, but Harley Quinn is a sidekick and she works best as a foil and commentator. As a main character, she is a challenge. A challenge the filmmakers failed to meet.

Christina Hodson’s (Bumblebee) script starts off appropriately hyper-frentetic, but never really finds a focus. And director Cathy Yan was very much out of her depth, taking this on as her first feature gig. The main issue doesn’t even quite become apparent till the final moments of the film, which plays into the title and the effort. But it is at that point that the issues crystalize.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Margot Robbie (Bombshell) isn’t entertaining. She isn’t brilliant, but she’s fun. And Rosie Perez (The Dead Don’t Die), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Gemini Man), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (True Blood), and newcomer Ella Jay Basco all deliver entertaining, if disconnected, performances to support Robbie and the movie. (Though I do have to call out that, though not an actor in her retinue, what a total waste of a hyena!)

However, the men are a bit less helpful. Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep) as the main big bad just never quite worked. His performance was forced and without the tense terror that Joker brings to his mayhem (pick your actor for that one). As his sidekick, on the other hand, I must admit that Chris Messina (Ira & Abby) surprised. He is barely recognizable as the bleach-blond Zsasz, and is suitably creepy as evil gopher and knife man. But their story, both together and as plot drivers, is nebulous and unclear at best. We get the bones of it all, but there is no sense of the power dynamics in the city, especially given what we know of Gotham.

So, if you really must see this, do it for the design (costume, sets, and cinematography are all wonderful) and for the one-liners or moments. Run with that and call it a win. But, honestly, you can put this way down your list and wait till its free.

Damsels in Distress

[2.5 stars]

Damsels is full of the dry, pseudo-intellectual humor you’d expect from a Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship) movie. However, I honestly don’t know how to describe this movie. It’s entertaining in its way, and highlights some real talent, but isn’t really a story. It is a series of wry vignettes with some fun dialogue. But it is so self-conscious and absurd , by design, that there is no reality to cling to in order to care about the characters.

And the characters are populated by quite the cast. Greta Gerwig (Little Women),  Analeigh Tipton (Golden Exits), and Megalyn Echikunwoke (Almost Family, Vixen) are the primary clique and point of view. But there is a host of people they interact with. Aubrey Plaza (Child’s Play), Billy Magnussen (Velvet Buzzsaw), and Adam Brody (Ready or Not) among others.

But without a connection to any of these you get to the end and scratch your head. It isn’t clever enough to be social satire, and it isn’t personal enough to be revelatory or in any way a commentary. So, I say again, what is it? I can’t answer. If you like Stillman’s early work, this will probably resonate with you. If you don’t, you may enjoy it as a bit of sketch comedy that is loosely bound together by themes and characters. But if you want a full movie, look elsewhere.

The Great Feast (La Grande Bouffe)

[3 stars]

I was pointed to this film years ago by a friend, but it has taken ages to get around to it. Given that it was produced in 1973, there was no rush. It has lived in infamy all these decades, and I don’t see that changing in the years to come. Marco Ferreri’s dark social satire about appetite is as effective today as it was on its release, and pushes just as many boundaries. It is as absurd as it is grotesque and profane, but somehow it manages to create a message.

With legends like Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Ugo Tognazzi, and the still prolific and working Andréa Ferréol (Coroner), it is well appointed with talent. The story starts off as a simple French farce, but turns about halfway through into vicious social satire as the real motivations and intents are revealed. It manages to remain interesting, despite some of the lines it crosses. And even more than 40 years later it is still applicable in today’s world with very little shift in focus or meaning.

When it was released, this film appalled many. It even, purportedly, caused Ingrid Bergman, who chaired Cannes that year, to be sick. I don’t see that as an issue today, though I don’t recommend eating while you watch. And unlike The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, this doesn’t assault your sensibilities, but rather insists that you examine your own appetites and relationship to the world.

It is, ultimately, a film of its time, ending on a bizarre set of images and events to wrap it up. You may or may not enjoy the journey, but there is a reason it has survived all these years as a part of the cinema firmament and I can’t say that I’m sorry I saw it…only that I saw it closely on the heels of my dinner…

La Grande Bouffe

Homebound entertainment across the streams

Far from exhaustive, here is a collection of a few I’ve been chomping on during the quarantine.

Netflix

Altered Carbon 2
Living up to the first season of this adaptation was never going to be easy. Anthony Mackie (The Hate U Give) does a solid job of picking up Kovacs and carrying the torch forward. And Simone Missick (Iron Fist) adds a nice subplot to it all as does the duet between Poe and his brethren driven by Chris Conner and Dina Shihabi (Jack Ryan). The major plot lines aren’t as well disguised in this series and it departs a great deal from the order of the books, but it is overall consistent and expands the world nicely. And, yes, sets up a third season which I’m there for with bells on. It continues to be solid science fiction with enough intelligence and action supporting it to keep me coming back for more.

Locke & Key
I wanted to like this more than I did in the end. It is solid for the first several episodes and then, around ep 7, some of the writing and choices get too forced. That said, it is a lot like a less dark and less competently written Umbrella Academy. There is a lot of mystery, some complex plotting, and healthy disregard for cliches (except when there isn’t). Despite any weaknesses, I’d be back for the second season to see if they pull it off and to see where it might go. For now, it was an enjoyable enough ride. 

Prime
Tales from the Loop
Imagine a weaker Black Mirror, something like Eureka meets Twilight Zone or perhaps a more grown up Amazing Stories. Tales from the Loop focuses nicely on emotions but is afraid to delve too deeply into the dark recesses of humanity nor the flat out uncaring of the universe. It is lighter fare, despite its trappings, aimed at young adults and those not looking to think too much. Well acted and produced, it will distract, but it isn’t going to feed the minds of those looking for something more complex. 

Hulu Live

High Fidelity
There is one reason and one reason alone to see this series: Zoë Kravitz (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald). She is just a wonder to behold. Not because of her obvious beauty, though that doesn’t hurt, but because she is utterly natural on screen. Her relaxed and open demeanor shatter the fourth wall and make you her intimate. The cast supporting her are all fine, and even better than fine at moments, but Kravitz makes this work in a way few others might have been able to do.

Devs
You have to love, or at least I do, a show that tackles complicated questions from physics and philosophy…especially when it is done with some actual understanding (however twisted that understanding becomes). That isn’t to say it isn’t stretched, nor that the show itself doesn’t have some painfully poorly written moments (particularly in the 7th episode). But, overall, there is some entertaining meat to to chomp into and Nick Offerman’s (Bad Times at the El Royale) obsessed tech guy makes up for any flat aspect that Sonoya Mizuno (Maniac) brings to her efforts.

Endlings
A perfectly fine children’s show, but not much to chomp on for adults. It is far too cute in its approach and brash with its message. For grade schoolers it is probably a great deal of fun.

Utopia Falls
This Hunger Games wannabe doesn’t even try to pretend they aren’t ripping off the obvious. And that would be fine if it also didn’t dip into the absurd. Seriously, a dance off for identifying the “chosen” of a society … and that between 16 year olds (who are more like 25 year olds)? At least The FP (one of the worst films I’ve ever seen) didn’t pretend it wasn’t absurd. This is a complete miss on ever so many levels.

The Magicians (series finale)

[4 stars]

I honestly didn’t think Magicians was going to survive the transition from season 4 and the exit of a major character. Not because they were such a great character but because they were a central lynchpin for everything else around them. It was part of what made the finale last season so effective. But where do you go from that?

The answer is to shake it all up. The loss is still there as an emotional ghost driving the machine, at least as a starting point. Characters all deal with the loss in different ways. But, smartly, the show has gone deeper into those remaining characters and, more importantly, even upset the seasonal structure. This round has a unique shape and, possibly, one of the best time-loop stories ever put together; certainly one of the best in a very long time.

This final season managed to be two seasons in one, packing a huge amount of story into the 13 episodes. And the last two episodes manage to wrap up a bundle of threads that leave it all very satisfying without closing off potential. The creators always knew this might be their last, so they worked hard to make this a season as well as a series finale, should it have to be. There is none of that lingering bitter aftertaste of incomplete tales.

The Magicians, overall, is a nicely arc’d five seasons. Sure it is loaded with angst and gratuitous sex and violence (and occasionally forced and overwrought), but all to make it feel different. This isn’t a pretty fantasy world, it’s dark and real and messy. Actions have consequences and people (and gods) disappoint… often. But it is ultimately satisfying and fun, even if it drifted so far from the original book material as to be practically unrecognizable to Grossman fans.

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars