Tag Archives: Comedy

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

Brian Henson has daddy issues, continues to commit career suicide, and The Happytime Murders may be the worst movie of the decade. For those in a hurry, you can go now. I wouldn’t blame you one damned but if you did. For the rest of my fellow masochists, I’ll elaborate, and make it mercifully briefer than this movie’s torturous 90 minute running time.

Still from The Happytime Murders (2018)The first time I read about The Happytime Murders, the description was a single sentence that went something like: “A movie about a serial killer who preys on Muppets.” My initial thought was, that premise is so weird, how can it go wrong?

Oh, it went wrong. Apparently Brian Henson feels that he doesn’t measure up to daddy, so much so that he’s gone the distance to butcher his pop’s legacy and intentionally produce something so wretched as to provoke Jim’s ghost. I hope it worked, because nothing else did in this mess, which is essentially the Muppets go Porkys with a few murders and fish-out-of-water Melissa thrown in. At least Porkys had a few (very) strained laughs, and Melissa’s previous “blockbuster,” the Back to School ripoff terribly directed by hubby is, comparatively, an endurable fun fest. Meet the Feebles (1989) this is not. Congrats should possibly go to Ben now that Henson has now replaced you as your wife’s worst director. However, since Ben is this film’s producer….

Henson has no idea what to do with his premise, and resorts to gags like Muppet sperm (silly string) and S&M puppet porn parlors. McCarthy is not only back to fat jokes, but after a confused Muppet offers her oral sex, she quips “I wish I had a d**k for you to suck.” Yuk. Yuk.

But see, she’s kind of a Muppet herself because, after being wounded in a sort of backstory shootout, it turns out she received a liver transplant from a dead Muppet, and the reason for that revelation? If you find out, don’t bother to share.

There’s a paper-thin satire on film noir detectives and a half-assed, insincere allegory of puppets as abused and oppressed minorities; which is blatantly condescending, as is the endless barrage of caricatures and stereotypes.

McCarthy is essentially rehashing her crude cop from Paul Feig’s The Heat (2013) and doing it much more poorly here. She clearly cannot distinguish between a good script and a bad script, and since audiences seem to tend to think that the actors just make up movies as they go along, McCarthy will take the lion’s share of the blame. Henson, who clearly was planning this as the initial entry in a new franchise, forgot the old adage about first impressions. With both critics and audiences in rare agreement, The Happytime Murders tanked on its opening weekend. It deserved to. The credit bloopers suggest the cast and crew had a blast making it. That fun is not at all in the movie, and everyone involved knew it.

Hands down, 2018 is the worst summer of movies I can recall.

CAPSULE: KING OF HEARTS (1966)

DIRECTED BYPhilippe de Broca

FEATURING: , , Françoise Christophe, ,

PLOT: Signal Corps pigeon-keeper Charles Plumpick is mistakenly sent into the recently abandoned town of Marville to defuse German explosives, but his mission hits a road block when released members of the local insane asylum adopt him as their king.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Hearts is whimsical, farcical, pacifist, fairly amusing and even sometimes tense—but not weird. Film-maker Phillippe de Broca lets his hippie-freak flag fly high, but the tone and story are altogether too bright and straight-forward for this to parade anywhere near List candidacy.

COMMENTS: It is altogether natural that a movie like this—an atypical period film (WWI) made during a disruptive decade (the 1960s) concerning a small French town taken over by the inmates of an asylum—appeared on our radar. Though filmed during the (stage) theatrical run of another asylum-themed dramaKing of Hearts is preaching more to the pacifist/anti-establishment choir than dealing, cinematically, with any madness other than the folly of war. While it is set during the first World War, it’s more of a fluffy predecessor to other counterculture anti-war films like Altman‘s M*A*S*H or ‘ Catch-22.

It is safe to presume that in contemporaneous times, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) would have been a draftee. The Great War was a strange beast, though, and as an Englishman there’s every reason to believe that this bookish lover of birds would have volunteered the minute he heard that Jerry was on the march. As a signals officer for the military (specialty: carrier pigeons) with a name similar to a bomb disposal expert, he is sent off to the recently evacuated—and recently booby-trapped—town of Marville. Feeling guilty, one of the townsfolk unlocks the insane asylum as he flees. After wandering out, the inmates find all kinds of diversions: dressing up fancifully, enjoying shaves and haircuts, and staging ad hoc parades. Our hero Plumpick is mistaken for their King, and spends the movie being feted, scurrying madly to find the bomb trigger, and getting seduced by a cinematically antediluvian manic pixie dream girl.

I was reminded of my love of darker cinema when I first watched King of Hearts: it is entirely missing any aura of unease, much less menace. The “insane” people are all highly functional, charming, and seemingly guilty of nothing more than harmless delusions and a capacity for wonder. The British soldiers are Scottish, the only reason for which I could deduce was so the film-maker could have a bunch of kilted yobbos running around (there’s a trio of soldiers sent after Plumpick that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the constables in The Pirates of Penzance). The Germans are boobs in the “Hogan’s Heroes” mold. The showdown between the two sides when they descend upon the city is the only bit of violence, and its orchestrated in a manner that screams, “Hey! I think war’s stupid!”

What kind of movie would it have been if Plumpick were infiltrating a bomb-laden city peopled by actually insane citizens? Obviously the movie would have been very different; and almost certainly much less beloved. King of Hearts was received lukewarmly at its release, but developed a considerable cult following since. There are some decent laughs, some clever lines, and yes, despite my complaints, I largely enjoyed the thing. However, throughout it all I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much darker, troubling, and altogether more glorious could this have been if the inmates had been more like those found in Charenton?” Ah well.

WHAT CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane.”–Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell

FEATURING: , , Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb

PLOT: Doc Sportello‘s grand-son, Sam, is going to be — wait, no. Disheveled loafer Sam is going to be kicked out of his apartment in five days for (criminally overdue) back-rent. Instead of fixing his domestic problem, he becomes embroiled in perhaps the biggest cover-up that has ever bamboozled the Golden State.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A serial dog murderer, a conspiracist ‘zine drawn to life, a map in a box of “Space Nuggets,” Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, palatial tombs, the Owl Woman, symbolic Chess moves, the Homeless King, and a mysterious Songwriter all come crashing down on a shiftless 30-something loser with a knack for crypticism. Barking women, Purgatory parties, and one bad cookie lock Under the Silver Lake into a realm of supreme strangeness reminiscent of that beach dream you had after reading Pynchon.

COMMENTS: Call it poor form of me, but I felt obliged to skip a second screening to hustle back and write about David Mitchell’s newest film. During the movie, variations on what to call it skipped around my brain, but ultimately I reckoned that Inherent Goonies best encapsulates the mood. This bizarre crime drama on barbiturates; this ambling post-Slacker comedy; this magnificent quest—somehow the director weds the listless protagonist with the adolescent adventure-stylings of “The Hardy Boys.” Jammed throughout are enough threads to sew yourself a nice cardigan to protect you from the sun while you’re strolling through the over-baked landscape of sorta-now-ish California.

Perched on his apartment’s balcony, Sam (Andrew Garfield) has a good view of his attractive older neighbor—a constantly topless bird fancier. Suddenly, a young beauty (Riley Keough) with a dog and a boombox catches his eye. They meet, they get high together, and then she disappears mysteriously in the middle of the night. Quietly curious and uncannily focused, Sam pursues the mystery at his own ambling pace, encountering an underground ‘zine artist (Patrick Fischler) who sets him on the right path and a coterie of über-hipster musicians whose songs are encoded with secret messages, before meeting the benevolent Homeless King (David Yow) by the grave of James Dean. What follows is an odyssey of unpleasant discovery as Sam finds that, for the rich, the world  is a very different kind of place than it is for everyone else.

I’ve already mentioned the Inherent Vice connection, and even if it were only Andrew Garfield’s Joaquin Phoenix-channeling performance, Under the Silver Lake would still be an odd duck. But David Mitchell keeps shoveling on more ducks at every turn. I don’t know where else I’d find cryptography and Hollywood history so intertwined. I don’t know where else I’d find the Purgatory club—the kind of place you might hang out between the Black and White Lodges. And I don’t know where else California’s bright lights  and beautiful people could find themselves crashing so violently into luxuriant subterranean twilight. Mitchell even drops some suggestions that Sam could be a burnt-out, alternate time-line Peter Parker.

Fortunately for us, our knight-errant keeps it together on his perilous mission seeking the maiden fair. The movie is epic in length and epic in scope, unveiling new side roads for Sam to shuffle along: sometimes in jeans, sometimes in pajamas. When an ultimate truth is discovered, Mitchell isn’t satisfied, and somehow manages to unveil an even ultimater truth. For reasons beyond my understanding, Under the Silver Lake was poorly received at Cannes. Perhaps it’s just not their kind of movie. Thank the heavens above for Fantasia: Mitchell’s latest effort found just the right kind of people there. With Under the Silver Lake, we fly very close to the sun; but unlike Icarus, we manage to crash comfortably on to our hot neighbor’s bed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] glib, weird hybrid comedy rife with conspiracy theories… what first seems a goofy light foray into pop culture slackerdom with a hefty added dose of voyeurism, becomes a down-the-rabbit-hole exploration of the fantasy geography of an L.A. undermined by subterranean caverns and tunnels, and inhabited by cultists, theorists, ethereal female escorts, and homeless shamans, as coyotes roam freely.” -Barbara Scharres, RogerEbert.Com

CAPSULE: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Stephen Plunkett,  Charlie Korsmo

PLOT: While starring in a low budget period horror film, Mabel makes the acquaintance of some affable “freaks” brought on set for authenticity; while the main cast and crew’s away, the freaks pass the time making their own movie vignettes.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made as a rejoinder to the infamous Freaks (1932), Aaron Schimberg’s movie is non-exploitative, clever, funny, and professional. While the meta-narrative gets a little odd at one point, Chained to Life really boils down to being a feel-good comedy in the very best possible way.

COMMENTS: I found something very odd about my viewing experience of Chained for Life, and it wasn’t the subject matter. After the brief introduction by the soft-spoken director, I was feeling nervous, for some reason. Admittedly, I’ve had difficulty coping with the sight of deformity (in person and otherwise), but having thought about it—and having now seen the movie—it was the wider critical interpretation that I’d read beforehand that made me apprehensive, and afterwards made me confused. I’ll talk about what other critics saw later; me, I saw a charming, character-driven comedy.

When a busload of disabled people show up at the shoot for a period horror film, there is a hiccup of apprehension on the part of the “normals” already present. The leading lady, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays the movie’s movie’s leading lady, a woman blinded by some unexplained accident who is promised to be cured through radical surgery. However, Chained for Life focuses primarily on the actors and crew involved, in particular on the blossoming friendship between the physically self-conscious Mabel and the physically self-accepting Rosenthal (Adam Pearson). While primary filming progresses by day, the “freaks” lodge in the hospital by night, eventually deciding to play around with filmmaking themselves. One twist leads to a cute reveal after a ways, but the story is pretty simple.

That’s not to say it isn’t well done. By using the pretentious “art-house” nonsense being filmed by a hyper- stand-in (billed only as “Herr Director”) as a counterpoint to the day-to-day scenes of people interacting with people, Aaron Schimberg crumples up any fear of “the Other” by focusing on the lighter side of the banality everyone faces. There are also moments of considerable hilarity scattered throughout. At one point, Herr Director demands Rosenthal “emerge from the shadows”. When asked the simple question, “What am I doing in the shadows?,” Herr Director goes off on a lengthy, increasingly impassioned tangent concerning The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ epic quest, and the big reveal of . This handily reveals the director’s obsessions without providing Rosenthal with any good reason why his character would just be kicking around in the dark, while also nicely linking the two phenomena together: as Schimberg remarked in an interview, whenever there’s a big reveal (chair swivel, shadow emergence), it’s either a celebrity or a “freak”.

But what of those other critics? One used the term “black comedy” , and the only interpretation I can make of that being any comedy involving these kinds of people must be subversive somehow. Another’s mind was blown by a modest twist found in the final act; it was as if he watched a far more complicated movie than I had. But despite the unsettling undercurrents discovered by other reviews, I found Chained for Life to be as pleasing as it is witty. As the credits appear, they spool over one long take on the bus of the variously disabled actors after the in-movie movie shoot. After so deftly undermining preconceptions about disfigured people, this stunt pays off handsomely. What do we see when we watch them on the bus? Totally normal people being totally, normal, bored. It was an excellent flourish and a perfect way to underline the film’s thesis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream.”–Callum Marsh, The Village Voice (festival screening)

341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my Continue reading 341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

LIST CANDIDATE: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley

FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover

PLOT: When telemarketer Cassius Green learns to use his “white voice,” he shoots up the corporate ranks, becomes a “power caller,” and is asked to compromise his principles in a shocking way.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9. And it gets bonus points for using the word “weird” as a selling point in its marketing campaign.

COMMENTS: Struggling to find a job that will pay the rent on his meager garage apartment and provide gas money for the rustbucket hand-me-down car his uncle gave him, Cassius Green stumbles into the sleazy entry-level sales world of telemarketing. An idealistic co-worker (Steven Yeun) wants to unionize, but when Cash learns to use his “white voice” to make sales, he’s promoted to a “Power Caller” instead, and sent (in a golden elevator) to the top floor to hawk Faustian inventory to multinational corporations for top dollar. His success causes friction with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (sexy and sassy Tessa Thompson), who embraces the new luxurious lifestyle briefly before deciding she misses the soul Cash sold, and letting her eye wander towards a more romantic target with more integrity.

That synopsis sounds like a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy, and Sorry to Bother You successfully orients its audience in that familiar genre before springing surprise after surprise as the plot gets deeper and weirder. We’re eased into the strangeness with magical realist comedy sketches: still wearing his headset, Cash appears in the flesh at his cold calls’ dinner tables, among more intimate settings. Then there’s the uncanny “white voice” (explained in a revealing cameo monologue by Danny Glover). By the time Cash is high on cocaine watching a claymation corporate propaganda film hosted by a topless ape woman, you’re totally immersed and invested in an anything-can-happen world very different from where we started. A company pimping out contractual slavery, Detroit’s confrontational earrings, a character whose name has been redacted, a performance of a monologue from The Last Dragon, and a badly improvised rap are just a few of the cleverly absurd gags that help distract us the nightmare scenario at the center of the film. It works on two levels; genuinely funny, at times even hilarious, the laughs keep the audience hypnotized in their seats while the message seeps into the brains. Just like any good ad campaign.

Sorry to Bother You‘s world is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but askew enough off that the satire never seems like a facile paint by numbers allegory. There are no obvious characters from the current administration, but there is a reality TV show called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and it’s possible to become a 15-minute celebrity by having a video of you being brained with a coke can make the rounds on YouTube. The movie addresses issues of racial identity, carnivalesque cultural depravity, and the working class’ financial treadmill with a touch that’s light but firm. It’s a sneaky sucker punch square in the zeitgeist’s gut. Thank you, Sorry to Bother You, for bothering me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley’s see-it-to-believe-it feature debut as a director, goes from agreeably strange to weird to surreal, but its brilliance lies in how it never stops feeling real, genuine, lived-in.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RELAXER (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Arin Bechdel,

PLOT: Abbie is a perennial failure at life, but he makes one final attempt to turn things around by accepting his brother’s challenge to beat the unbeatable Pac-Man score, all while never moving from his seat on the couch.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Starting with a “gallon challenge” and ending not-quite-apocalyptically, the ordeals of a seated young man unspool without him ever leaving the couch, nor us ever leaving the room. All the thirst, sweat, and odors pile on as our entrapment goes on. And on. And on. Until something cosmically mystical occurs.

COMMENTS: It seems almost a rule that the most mild-mannered directors are the ones that come up with the most eccentric movies. has his very British affability; has been a Midwestern swell-guy since childhood; and now there’s rising star Joel Potrykus with his laid-back hipster self, who is somehow responsible for the giddily grinding post-slacker comedy, Relaxer. “Gross-out comedy,” now that’s a genre I’m familiar with. But a “charming gross-out transcendental comedy”? I can only presume that Relaxer is the first of that ground-breaking genre.

Oh my dear Abbie (Joshua Burge). We only ever see him covered with sweat (and more) cowering on a couch. From the start, he’s enduring a sickening challenge, one of many put to him by his brother, that soon becomes literally sickening. The boy fails to keep the gallon of milk he’s consumed inside after a… well, best not say what he added to the mix in a bit of bathroom desperation. His brother Cam (a wonderfully nasty David Dastmalchian) leaves in disgust, but not before giving Abbie one last ultimate challenge: the Pac-Man thing. The impossible Pac-Man thing. Abbie cannot—and does not—leave his greasy spot on the leather couch during a six month ordeal in which things grow as strange as they grow unhygienic.

Among the venerable sources Potrykus hijacks ideas from are Buñuel, Kubrick, and, I swear, even the New Testament. The first is obvious, and the director even admitted to ripping off a lot of The Exterminating Angel in his remarks to the audience after the screening. Unlike our heroes therein, however, Abbie makes the wrong choice of what pipe to burst open for water—wonderfully fusing gross-out with the surrealism. 2001: A Space Odyssey necessarily comes to mind toward the end, as Abbie breaks the sequence and rises to a higher plane as the masses outside seemingly cheer him on. As for the third reference, I’m possibly stretching things, but over his ordeal Abbie grows to look like a shaggy Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene makes a cameo in the form of Arin (Adina Howard), a friend who helps Abbie on his path toward the divine. What locked it for me was the final scene when Abbie-Jesus seemingly rises from the dead to be greeted by his long-sought Father.

Potrykus stated without shame that he made Relaxer for himself, but its elements suggest that this bizarre slice of late ’90s throw-back might reach more than expected. There’s comedy, there’s cinematic dexterity (the camera stretches to most every available piece of the room without looking like it’s trying too hard), and even an epic feel to Abbie’s journey from Novice couch potato to Master couch potato. Skipping surreptitiously from Clerks-style comedy to an outer-zone of awareness, Relaxer reaches for the impossible—typically with the aid of a grabber-arm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film takes on an element of magical realism as the days and months pass, framing Abbie as a martyr with superhuman endurance … That Relaxer is structured as a countdown to Y2K suggests that Potrykus is offering a period-specific diagnosis of technologically dependent delusion, of the hallucinations of omnipotence that spring in the minds of marathon gamers. Fuzzy as this hodgepodge of signifiers may seem, there’s a pronounced critique at the heart of Relaxer clearly aimed at young people who are perilously glued to their screens, though it’s one that feels somewhat passé alongside the meaty class commentary of Buzzard.–Carson Lund, Slant Magazine (festival screening)