Tag Archives: Black Comedy

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)

290. SKINS (2017)

Pieles

“I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.”–Baruch Spinoza

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Eduardo Casanova

FEATURING: Ana Polvorosa, Candela Peña, Macarena Gómez, Carmen Machi, Jon Kortajarena, Secun de la Rosa, Itziar Castro, Antonio Durán ‘Morris’, Ana María Ayala, Eloi Costa

PLOT: Unable to control his impulses, a tormented pedophile visits a madame who specializes in unusual tastes. From the catalog she offers, he selects a girl born with no eyes, and brings her a gift of two jewels. The lives of these two, along with other internally and externally deformed people including a woman with an anus for a mouth and a boy who wishes he was a mermaid, intersect in surprising ways seventeen years later.

Still from Skins [Pieles] (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Eduardo Casanova was a child star on Spanish television. Starting in 2009, he used the money and connections he made acting to make a series of short films. Many of the eventual cast members of Skins appear in these shorts. One, 2015’s “Eat My Shit,” features Ana Polvorosa in an incident that later made it into Skins (although the tone of the short is more juvenile and jokey than the feature film).
  • Underground director and actress (who starred in one of Casanova’s earlier shorts and appears in a small role as a psychiatrist here) served as producers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This pink and purple freak fantasia provides many possibilities, both disturbing and beautiful. The obvious choice would be Samantha, the girl with the inverted digestive system. If at all possible, it’s best that her appearance be left as a surprise, although that may be hard to do given her prominence in the trailer and the fact that she’s the character everyone describes when describing the movie to their friends. We’ll go in a different, but equally memorable, direction by selecting Cristian’s mermaid-boy fantasy, which features the lavender-headed outcast seated on a rock crusted by pink seashells in a purple-walled heaven while fish rain around him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink merkin; the prettiest eyes in the world; freak fetish

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  From the opening scene of a reluctant pedophile crying as he makes his selection in a highly specialized brothel, decorated all in pink and run by an elderly madame who works in the nude, Skins‘s crazy credentials are never in doubt. Perhaps the most shocking things aren’t the deformities and perversions but the compassion and intricate plotting, which suggest depths beyond Skins‘ freak show surface.


Promotional video for Skins (Imagine Film Festival Screening)

COMMENTS: A weird, glittering pink gem lies hidden deep in the Continue reading 290. SKINS (2017)

CAPSULE: THE DOOM GENERATION (1995)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Johnathon Schaech

PLOT: Three teenagers have sex and go on a murder spree.

Still from The Doom Generation (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With lots of low-comedy shocks but very little outright weirdness, The Doom Generation is a shallow, unilluminating wallow in hyperironic misery. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it makes Akari’s followup, Nowhere, seem mature and clever by comparison.

COMMENTS: The main characters are a slut, an idiot, and a psycho. It’s never a good sign when the audience hates all three of the principals and hopes that they will die. Instead, the trio kill a bunch of people who are probably as loathsome as they are—but we never get the chance to find out for sure, because we’re stuck following these losers on their tour of American convenience stores and motel rooms. The only possible reason to like these characters would be the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between Amy and Jordan, but Araki sabotages that possibility by making the male a spineless cuckold, and granting the female’s selfish fantasy of banging the bad boy while keeping her sweet doting lover on the side. Meanwhile, there’s nothing at all redeemable about third-wheel Xavier, who exists only to seduce these two lost souls into a life of slaughter that, we assume, is meant to play as their logical reaction to the superficial consumerist society they find themselves trapped in.

The Doom Generation is a painfully tone-deaf satire that tries for the trashy camp of , but actually has the comic sensibilities of Dude, Where’s My Car? To wit: the decapitated Asian Quickiemart clerk’s name is—get this—“Nguyen Kok Suk.” Heh heh, brilliant: pass that bong, brah. I suppose the meta-joke is supposed to be that Araki is crafting a movie that’s so dumb that his characters—kids given to uttering self-pitying lines like “there’s just no place for us in this world”—would think was deep. A newswoman characterizes the skull earring found at a crime scene as “the type sold most frequently in ‘rock and roll’ paraphernalia shops, often worn by homosexuals, Satanists, and members of other dangerous cult groups.” This, of course, is the way clueless teenagers imagine clueless adults talk about them. Araki lays the irony on so thick that we can’t tell whether he’s secretly fond of these kids (whose only good act is to bury a dog they accidentally kill), or is just using them for the sex and murder money shots he needs to keep the audience feeling smug, titillated and jaded.

The characters surnames are Red, White and Blue, and every time they purchase something at a convenience store or drive-thru, the cash register rings up “$6.66.” Is Araki implying that America is hell? I can’t tell. The only good points about the movie are the art direction, Rose McGowan’s performance (a confident debut in her first starring role), and a somewhat amusing running joke where Amy keeps running into old lovers she denies knowing. The only weird points are the severed head that keeps talking after it flies off its body and the green screen news broadcast where vapid talking heads deliver campy copy over grisly crime scene footage. Otherwise, this is a tedious tale of three unpleasant people wandering around and killing things until their movie ends. It should have been titled The Dim Generation.

Lest one I assume I have some personal vendetta against Gregg Araki, note that I gave The Mysterious Skin a “Must See” rating. It’s hard to imagine that that intelligent and emotionally shattering drama, which tackles the subject of youthful disaffection with authenticity and compassion rather than sick jokes, was the work of the same director as the self-consciously hip Doom Generation. The difference in quality results from Araki, a great stylist but not a great thinker, adapting someone else’s material rather than writing his own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… structured as an apocalyptic journey into the unknown — America’s wastelands — but this time the road comedy is hallucinatory and psychedelic, in a style reminiscent of ‘Natural Born Killers,’ though blessedly lacking Oliver Stone’s blatant message and obvious satire… The trio flee into a bizarre world of nightmarish violence and omnipresent danger that gets darker and darker as their odyssey progresses.”–Emanuel Levy, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Eva”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

“By the time I made Desperate Living, the era of midnight movies was over, so at the time it was the least successful of all my films. Weirdly enough, it now does really well on video and college campuses. And I’m not quite sure why.”–John Waters

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Susan Lowe, Liz Renay, Jean Hill, , , “Turkey Joe”

PLOT:  With the help of 400 pound maid Griselda, suburban housewife Peggy accidentally murders her deceptively bucolic husband and goes on the lam. A cop directs the fugitives toward a Pleasure Island for criminals called Mortville. Things go south with the village’s fascistic matriarch, until there’s a mutiny in the ramshackle town.

Still from Desperate Living (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • was originally intended for the role of Mole McHenry (eventually played by Susan Lowe), but could not back out of an alternate commitment. Desperate Living is the only film Waters made during Divine’s lifetime in which the hefty transvestite did not appear.
  • Waters did not cast regular for the film due to the latter’s drug use. Lochary died soon after Desperate Living was released, either from a PCP overdose or from bleeding to death during an accident that occurred while he was tripping on PCP (reports differ).
  • The tagline was “It isn’t very pretty”—a radical understatement.
  • Budgeted at $65,000, this was Waters’ most expensive film to date. 1974’s Female Trouble had a budget of $25,000, while 1972’s Pink Flamingos cost a mere $10,000.
  • The extras of Mortville were homeless residents from the Baltimore skid row, bused in for a single day’s shoot.
  • According to Waters, lesbian groups in Boston protested the film, forcing its cancellation in Beantown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening credit scene of a dead rat served on expensive china, salted, and eaten at a swank dinner party. It sets the table for what’s to come.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cross-dressing cop; toddler in the fridge; scissors self-castration

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waters outdoes Multiple Maniacs“cavalcade of perversion” in this grunge fairy tale that includes systematic lesbianism, cross-dressing, odious hippie sex scenes, cannibalism, necrophilia, bat rabies, copious facial warts, and gap-toothed queen Edith Massey sexually serviced by leather-bound Nazis.

Opening credits for Desperate Living

COMMENTS:  The finale in John Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” Desperate Continue reading 280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

CAPSULE: PARENTS (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban

FEATURING: , Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky

PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.

Still from Parents (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTParents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise KingdomGosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.

COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die HardComing to AmericaRain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.

A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?

The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.

Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire