Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo

PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.

Still from The Greasy Strangler (2016)
BACKGROUND
:

  • Jim Hosking worked as a music video and commercial director making short films on the side since 2003. His big break came when his bizarre and transgressive “G is for Grandad” segment of ABCs of Death 2 impressed that film’s producers, two of whom went on to produce The Greasy Strangler. and  also served as executive producers on the film.
  • The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
  • This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, ‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or . Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.


Short clip from The Greasy Strangler

COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the Continue reading 262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

El àngel exterminador

Must See

“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”

“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rambal, , , Lucy Gallardo, Augusto Benedico

PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
  •   Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
  • Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
  • The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
  • Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
  • While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
  • The Exterminating Angel is a staple of “top films ever made” lists, including The New York Times‘ Best 1000 Movies Ever Made and Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works. British composer Thomas Adès recently adapted the movie into an opera.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The Exterminating Angel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.

COMMENTS: Between his genre-establishing Un Chien Andalou up Continue reading 261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without Continue reading 259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

“Usually you can fall back on a genre or something and go, ‘It’ll be great!’ With us, we were like, ‘I don’t know man, we’re making something crazy, it might not turn out well…’” – Daniel Kwan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: Paul Dano,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washed ashore. Investigating, he finds it is endowed with many with life-saving powers, and eventually develops the power of speech. Naming the corpse “Manny,” the two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries to find his way home and Manny tries to remember what it’s like to be alive.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is the first feature from writing/directing team “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They met at Emerson College in 2008, and soon collaborated on short films and music videos that combined Kwan’s background in design and animation with Scheinert’s background in comedy and theater.
  • Kwan came up with the idea as a joke, and the two aspiring filmmakers would pitch it during studio meetings for fun until they were eventually encouraged to actually develop it into something. The script came together in 2014 at the Sundance Labs, where was one of their advisors. (According to Scheinert, he wanted them to somehow incorporate the Gilligan’s Island theme song.)
  • Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were the first actors to whom they sent the script. Both agreed immediately, after which Daniels rewrote the parts to be more suited to the actors.
  • Daniel Radcliffe insisted on performing most of his own stunts.
  • Daniels’ Grammy-nominated music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” single was a testing ground for the idea of an independent-minded penis later used in Swiss Army Man. Daniel Kwan himself is the main dancer in the video.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hank’s descriptions of women and sex (along with help from an alluring advertisement) provoke a sudden erection in Manny, but it soon becomes clear that his penis is actually pointing their way home. The erratic movements of Daniel Radcliffe’s member as it jerks within his pants towards a nearby pathway create an image I certainly won’t forget any time soon.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Corpse jet ski; DIY bus ride; fiery (and propulsive) bear escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With a farting, hacking, spewing, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the film’s complete sincerity, which despite all its high-concept groundwork makes its audience care deeply about its central characters.


Trailer for Swiss Army Man

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are Continue reading 257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll

FEATURING: Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Michael Boston,

PLOT: A small-town band of desert criminals steals a car with a baby in the backseat; the evil patriarch orders him to be raised as one of them.

Still from Sonny Boy (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It misses by a hair. Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is a unique, and weird, cult classic horror/comedy/genre-defying oddball. It is beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer. But its story is straightforward and linear, and it stays grounded mostly in reality. As hillbilly exploitation, it lies on a spectrum between Deliverance and Gummo. But at least 50% of its weirdness comes from David-Carradine-In-Drag, and we’ve seen much worse in any film.

COMMENTS: The opening prepares you in no way for what you’re about to see. David Carradine sings a folksy country number (written by him—we later see him perform it on the piano) that sounds like a homage to John Denver. This plays over helicopter shots of placid New Mexico heartland. Soon we’ll be seeing David in the cast, and are we in for a surprise. A minute after the credits, the infant child of two parents shot over a car-jacking gone wrong narrates, with a clown doll leering at us as the thief speeds away in their 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and we find ourselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas territory. Welcome to Sonny Boy, enjoy your ride.

The carjacked baby ends up the adoptee of “Slue,” (Paul L. Smith,  who played “Bluto” in ‘s Popeye), the small town crime baron of Harmony, New Mexico, and his wife, David-Carradine-In-Drag (“Pearl”). Carradine dominates every scene he’s in–because that’s the Kill Bill guy in a dress, acting downright maternal. He gets more hilarious as the film wears on, turning gray and grandmotherly as Sonny’s life story unfolds. Slue’s flunkie apologizes—“I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no baby”—but Sonny’s fate is sealed when David-Carradine-In-Drag cradles him to his breast (?) and declares “This is MY baby!” Slue is a destructive man who blows up cars with a canon for fun, and his paternal instincts turn out to be equally warped. Slue and his merry band of henchmen live a post-apocalyptic existence, with TV sets stacked like Legos and junk cars dotting the landscape like grazing buffalo, amongst herds of roaming hogs.

We’re given glimpses of Sonny’s childhood in installments, including a birthday party with, yes, the infamous tongue-cutting scene. The festive balloons and animal masks lend the scene the eeriness of a cult ritual, which is about the right mindset for fans of this movie at this point. Sonny is raised as a psychopath-in-training, alternately dragged behind cars and staked out in a ring of fire. Eventually he is Continue reading CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)