Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: MURDER PARTY (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Saulnier

FEATURING: Chris Sharp, Kate Porterfield, Tess Porterfield Lovell

PLOT: On Halloween night on a whim, Chris collects an invitation to a “murder party” with no explanation and shows up in a cardboard costume; the party turns out to be more than he’d banked on, as his hosts are a collective of artists out to commit a murder to win a performance art grant.

Still from Murder Party (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Well, come on, it’s a black comedy/horror that never really strays into uncharted territory. Made on an impoverished budget, the premise is original and the characters are a raving cast of oddballs, but it only adds up to a fun diversion with chuckles and gore, not weirdness.

COMMENTS: Chris (Chris Sharp) plants his foot on a party invitation fluttering through the grimy streets of New York, and since the invitation isn’t directed at anyone in particular, he accepts it as his. It’s Halloween night, after all, and he just wants to party for once in his dull life. Woe betide Chris! His chakras are out of alignment, his lucky stars are in retrograde motion, and his karma is moldy. After fashioning a quick get-up, he sets out to find the party, attired as a cardboard knight. From the minute he arrives at a trashed warehouse in an industrial hell-zone, this party seems off-kilter. The other attendees scoff at the invitation and pounce on him, all but ignoring the pumpkin bread he baked for the potluck dinner.

Chris is tied up in a chair in the warehouse, and we get to know our hosts: Bill (William Lacey), a ghoulish baseball player who sullenly sits on the floor playing with his phone all night; Macon (Macon Blair), a drunk and insanely clutzy werewolf; Paul (Paul Goldblatt), a meek participant who has trouble living up to his aristocratic vampire costume; Lexi (Stacy Rock), in a gleefully deranged impression of Pris from Blade Runner; and Sky (Skei Saulnier), the closest thing to a normal person there, and also the most allergic to raisins. They’re soon joined by Alexander (Sandy Barnett), a purveyor of fine arts and hard drugs with a six-figure grant to hand out to an artist that impresses him. The gang of artists have decided that their art project will constitute committing a fully documented murder. But they needed to set a trap for a random victim, so they made this invitation—and they can’t believe it worked.

Now that we’re set up for a story, sit back and munch candy corn (no seriously, it’s featured prominently) and watch the festivities unfold. There will be lots of chaos, as none of these people, least of all Chris, are remotely capable at what they’re trying to do. Like any good horror movie, you will see lots of characters die, but this time most of them will be dismissed from this vale of tears by their own stupidity. Chris tries many desperate plans to escape, and what little success he has is by pure luck combined with a shocking lack of imagination. It’s a witty social satire for black comedy fans. It’s also the lowest-budget you could possibly have and still make a movie work. “Punk” is a perfect word to describe it; if you picture the people behind Repo Man making a Halloween movie that’s also a satire of pretentious artists—with an even smaller budget and no name stars—you’re pretty close to pegging it. The movie suffers from a lagging pace in a couple places, and some bits just plain don’t work. However, taken for what it is, Murder Party lives up to everything you’d expect from the title, just not much more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“After an hour of entertainingly crass buildup, pic erupts in a riot of outrageous, quite funny violence that leaves almost no one alive. Punk/metal soundtrack is in keeping with gonzo tone.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FLESH (1991)

La carne

DIRECTEDY BY:

FEATURING: Sergio Castellitto, Francesca Dellera, Petra Reinhardt

PLOT: A nightclub pianist drops everything—his job, kids, beloved dog—to shack up with a mysterious woman who randomly enters his life, pursuing an alternately playful and carnal relationship involving, at various points, a paralysis-induced-erection, breast-feeding at St. Faustino’s shrine, storks, and whimso-sadism.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The plot description gives a hint, I suspect. Marco “La Grande Bouffe” Ferreri revisits themes of food, sex, and love, albeit with a (comparatively) light-hearted touch this time around. The movie’s tone veers strangely between Dirty Dancing and 37º2 le matin (Betty Blue), as the mood shifts from maudlin to passionate to absurd—all while late ’80s hits (OMG Milli Vanilli!) randomly crop up on the soundtrack.

COMMENTS: Marco Ferreri, Italy’s foremost disgruntled auteur, has a knack for drama that hovers around the darker side of aimless. Dillinger is Dead brings meandering film into the realm of the surreal, with its protagonist just puttering around his apartment until a dramatic finale. La Grande Bouffe tells the tale of the un-tragic deaths of four well-heeled professionals. In The Flesh, his penultimate cinematic release, Ferreri takes on the art crowd with a shouting kind of mumble-core. Over the course of the movie, strange things befall our protagonist, a singing, piano-and kazoo-playing performer who has a lot going for him that he throws away.

Paolo (Sergio Castellitto) takes his children to a natural history museum where his personal foibles are on display. He rages (at the animatronic dinosaurs) after he’s told that his estranged wife, a civil servant, won’t allow his son to have a first communion. (Here we see the conflict between Italy’s communist elements and its Catholic ones). At work the next evening (afternoon? seems like a lot of people have just started drinking early), we meet Francesca (Francesca Dellera), Europe’s melancholy answer to the “manic pixie dream girl.” Abandoning his post at the club, his obligation to a sick friend, and his child-support payments, Paolo spends some heady days at his remote beach-front cottage. The story becomes strange when, upon him failing to achieve potency one day, Francesca uses a massage technique that leaves him powerless to move, albeit able to oblige sexually.

The Flesh unsettlingly combines the genres of romantic-dramedy and symbolist screed, all to an incongruous pop-rock soundtrack. Francesca, right on the heels of an abortion, falls for the charmingly arrogant piano man, if only because she finds him so different from the mellow young guru she shacked up with before. Having trapped Paolo in stiff paralysis, she only spends time with him to feed him and make love, sometimes simultaneously. Otherwise, she’s out observing the recurring stork metaphor, at one point meeting up with a woman breast-feeding a pair of twins. Violence vs. sex also crops up, as the shelling from ships offshore causes Paolo’s temporary impotence while simultaneously arousing Francesca. And, as I said, there’s Milli Vanilli, late era Queen, and a strange bit at the end involving both storks and cannibalism.

Ferreri presents his disappointments in life with a darkly magical realist flair. He could be considered a grim counter-part to Federico Fellini, with Sergio Castellitto acting as his post-modern Marcello Mastroianni. Marriage is a sham, friendships are all-too-readily abandoned, women induce insanity, and death is assured. Circumstance stamps the life out of the free-spirited protagonist who somehow never becomes sympathetic. For all its sunlit scenes, fertility imagery, and up-tempo music, The Flesh is a dark musing on the ultimate pointlessness of romance and devotion. And storks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Ferreri’s] penultimate film… finds his outrageous and surgically precise touch still in evidence, and his recurring theme of dysfunctional men perplexed and transformed by women who enter their lives receives perhaps its most direct and unorthodox treatment here.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: 11:14 (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Greg Marcks

FEATURING: , Hilary Swank, , Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas

PLOT: A ragtag assortment of small-town misfits shuffle through an eventful night: we follow the small cast through their stories, which all intertwine at the fateful minute of 11:14PM. Someone will die, someone will get arrested, someone will get in a fight, several people will have vehicular damage, and absolutely everybody will panic.

Promotional image from 11:14 (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great, dark comedy thriller that quaffs a heroic shot of with a chaser of ’ comedy. But it’s not even remotely weird. As a Public Service Announcement, PLEASE stop cramming the reader suggestion box with every random movie you can name just because you like it. This is the WEIRD (Adj.: “very strange, bizarre”) movie site.

COMMENTS: The movie opens with bouncy alternative rock and an animation of the credits driving around on a grid of streets. Yes, you guessed correctly, this is an Indie Flick. Eighty-six minutes later, it proves to be one of those gems that are the whole reason you hang out at film festivals. 11:14 is so clever, it’s almost a fault, like the one kid too smart for his own good that can’t resist showing off, so much that the rest of the class strains for a chance to knock him down a notch. The story intertwines five mini-stories in a small town in Anywhere, America, all of which intersect at 11:14 P.M. on what would have been an uneventful night if everybody had stayed home. It also does that Tarantino thing where it shows the events out of order so we can see how all the parts of the evening fit together. Ready? No you’re not.

In this busy town full of busy people, we meet #1: Jack (Henry Thomas) is a drunk driver who sails under an overpass and gets into an accident; #2: Tim (Stark Sands), Mark (Colin Hanks) and Eddie (Ben Foster), teenage waste-aways who are driving around bored when Eddie injures himself during a completely different accident; #3: Frank (Patrick Swayze), walking his dog and finding car keys belonging to his daughter, Cheri (Rachael Leigh Cook), implicating her in a crime he wants to clear her for; #4: Duffy (Shawn Hatosy) who thinks he has gotten Sheri pregnant and needs money for an abortion, so he goes to his friend Buzzy (Hilary Swank), who works at a convenience store, for help; and #5: Cheri, who is in the cemetery having sex with her boyfriend Aaron when yet another freak accident happens. “Middleton: A happy place to live!” Most of all, this is a movie about people under pressure making hasty decisions.

As you can see, this movie is set up to make life hell for movie re-cappers. How does all this come off? Everybody has a Wile E. Coyote scheme that backfires, and furthermore random events by coincidence steer all of their fates no matter how they try to wriggle out of them. Nobody in this movie is particularly stupid, it’s just that they’re C-average ordinary people who find themselves at crisis points. The dialog is funny, the characters are well-cast, the soundtrack rocks, the plot construction is dizzying, and of course the movie has to keep starting over again to show time from different characters’ points of view as all their drama intersects in an untidy heap at the fateful minute. It’s dark, funny, thrilling, and tickling. It demands multiple viewings so you can retrace the plot intersections and try to spot the exact minute writer-director Greg Marcks is stuffing all the rabbits and doves into his hat. The show-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Marcks does a number of things quite well. He establishes a difficult tone — part dramatic, part comic, part absurdist — and he maintains it throughout.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This  movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who described it as “definitely untypical.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

Braindead and Meet the Feebles…were wisely overlooked by the Academy…”– Peter Jackson, accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mark Hadlow, Donna Akersten, Peter Vere-Jones, Stuart Devenie, Bryan Sergent

PLOT: A group of puppets, “the Feebles,” prepare for their first live TV broadcast. Unfortunately fragile egos, double-dealings, accidental killings, pornographic sidelines, rohypnol-aided assault, and drug and sex addictions plague their rehearsals. This ain’t no kid’s film.

Still from Meet the Feebles (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jackson’s second film after 1987’s surprise low-budget hit Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles was originally conceived as a TV series until Japanese investors convinced Jackson to transform it into a feature. It was then hastily re-written and shot in twelve weeks.
  • The dialogue was recorded before filming began.
  • The film went over budget and over-schedule, forcing Jackson and crew to submit what they had so far to satisfy the New Zealand Film Commission, and then film a remaining scene (the Vietnam flashback) by breaking into the Studio at night. This sequence was then submitted as a separate film to the NZFC entitled “The Frogs of War.”
  • Won Best Contribution to Design for Cameron Chittock, for the puppets at the 1990 New Zealand Film Awards.
  • Bryan Pike’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big finale where Heidi massacres fellow cast members with a machine gun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chicken/elephant baby; heroin-injecting flashback frog; “Sodomy” massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are no human beings in front of the camera whatsoever (with the exception of Abi, a human-esque contortionist puppet), only a lusty rabble of puppet misfits all clamoring for television stardom. Somewhere between “Avenue Q” and “The Muppets” lies this unseemly purgatory of puppet scheming, murder and mayhem.


Meet the Feebles opening theme song

COMMENTS: Like Dead Alive (1992), Meet the Feebles is another Continue reading 297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

PLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

Lowlife (2017) PosterWHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)