Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: TINY CINEMA (2022)

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Tiny Cinema is currently available for VOD rental or purchase. The Blu-ray releases on Oct. 11, 2022 and is available for pre-order.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Ford, Tyler Cornack

COMMENTS: Oh, anthology horror: what are we to do with you? There’s something of a process for writing about long-form narrative films. (There’s also a process for dealing with short films, albeit a semi-tragic one: largely ignore them because of the limited market.) But for me, anthologies present a quandary. The broad, brush-stroke of “Here are some themes and things that happened” clashes with the impulse to write about each of the titles. Tyler Cornack’s assembly of short films (developed, if I read correctly, from some of his even shorter films) rarely bores the viewer—a benefit of flitting from one story the next with due haste—and never quite draws the viewer into the world—a disadvantage of that very same process.

Brief poking around the internet suggests that the closing short, “Daddy’s Home,” was one of every other critics’ least favorite segments. However, this oddity best captured my attention and is clearly the weirdest of this oddball crop of macabre. Sam is on a blind date, and it is going well. So well that the young woman he’s ended up with busts out what he thinks is some casual cocaine. Having snuffed the bump, she informs him that, no, that is not blow, the ashes of her father. This triggers the most unusual curse I’ve ever witnessed. Troubled by this reveal, Sam endures the evening’s remains, and leaves the lady with no promise of ever seeing her again. The next day, the dad jokes begin. “Excuse me, do you have a bookmark?,” “I do have a book, but my name’s not ‘Mark’!,” is but one of the awful-awkward rejoinders he finds himself spouting. As he begins to age rapidly and lose his hair, he decides to visit the home of his blind-date for a showdown whose finale reminded me of a classic sketch involving seduced milkmen.

Other offerings include the smirk-inducing exploration of who the infamous “she” of “that’s what she said” might be; a Nekromantik 2/Re-Animator hybrid which has the welcome touch of showing personal growth in the main character; a liquor store robbery/sexual role-playing ensemble buddy comedy; a time-loop apocalypse tale which has the courage to ask the question, Would you have sex with your future self to save the planet?, and… so on in that vein. To praise this movie with faint damnation, each of the segments would have done better as a short before a film festival feature. Instead, these scattershot ideas are minimally held together by the dead-pan charisma of Paul Ford, whose welcome presence prevented me from tossing this into the Try Again bin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cornack has found the perfect balance of narrative variety and tonal consistency. For while these stories flirt variously with sci-fi, or horror, or the tropes of mobster or heist flicks, what unifies them – beyond their shared location and the Host’s occasional interventions – is that they are all weird, witty and utterly wrong.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SQUEAL (2021)

AKA Samuel’s Travels

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DIRECTED BY: Aik Karapetian

FEATURING: Kevin Janssens, Laura Silina, Aigars Vilims,
Normunds Griestins

PLOT: While searching for his biological father in Eastern Europe, Kevin inadvertently runs over a pig, and suffers the consequences.

COMMENTS: Barry Lyndon is not what I was expecting to keep coming to mind. Squeal is not British, it’s not produced up the wazoo, and it’s not a film that, decades from now, people will be discussing in lengthy essays about this, that, and the other. Squeal is a modern-day fairy tale set in the vestiges of an older-world Europe; it is a fish-out-of-water comedy with violent overtones; and it’s more an exercise in hit-and-run whimsy than a grand epic. However, Aik Karapetian knows his film history, and how to ape the greats. Calm, counterpoint narration intermittently springs upon us. Refined orchestral tinklings permeate the film score. And in Samuel, we have one of the most inactive, cipherous leads since Ryan O’Neal’s turn as the consummately reactive Barry Lyndon.

Samuel is traveling far from home to the rural outskirts of progress-delayed Eastern Europe in search of his biological father. The motive for this expedition is never clarified, and by the time his snazzy VW sedan smacks into a recently-escaped pig, the filmmaker abandons the whys of Samuel’s plot-triggering pursuit. This pig, who is important enough for the narrator to devote some considerable remarks, is owned by not-yet-middle-aged Kirke, single woman and daughter of a local pig farmer. She had been out looking for her pig, finding it right after Samuel nearly kills it (indeed, he is in the middle of burying the presumably passed porcine when Kirke appears, triggering the animal to rise, Lazarus-like, and attempt to flee once more). This warning is lost on the out-of-towner, and so the three of them drive to Kirke’s pig farm. Samuel ends up spending the night, and then many more nights as he becomes… integrated with life in the sty.

There is a mean streak to Squeal that sidles awkwardly along its pretense of whimsy. Indeed, the other film that came to mind was Eli Roth’s Hostel, as Samuel is forced to endure considerable physical abuse at the hands of Kirke’s father and a would-be suitor—a local runt of a man named Jancuks, who we eventually witness enduring a fate similar to Samuel’s empigment. And this choice of pigs here conjures the Greek legend of Circe. Squeal begins as a tale about a pig attempting escape from the bondage at the farm, preferring the risks of starvation and wolves. This pig develops a mental bond with the imprisoned protagonist, who lacks the bravery of his curly-tailed counterpart: Samuel escapes on occasion, but returns nonetheless.

So what do we have here? A classically informed story, told with ironic playfulness, featuring regular scenes of unpleasant violence. The clashing narrative impulses manage to work together somehow, but tilt more toward dark Wes Anderson than anything from Kubrick. The final scene suggests indecision on the part of Samuel, who ends up on the farm (but out of the sty) contemplating his fate. With all this ambiguousness, I’m not sure that Squeal worked entirely—but I was pleased that it at least went whole hog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Playing out tropes familiar from ‘torture porn’, while inverting the usual gender dynamics of that subgenre, Samuel’s Travels is an absurdist fable of freedom and slavery, with a BDSM kink in its porcine tail.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FREEWAY (1996)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Bokeem Woodbine, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields,

PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.

Still from Freeway (1996)

COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.

Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.

This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.

Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.

As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.

Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology… plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ and the berserk revenge fantasy of ‘Switchblade Sisters.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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

366 UNDERGROUND: HEY, STOP STABBING ME! (2003)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh “Worm” Miller

FEATURING: Patrick Casey, Andy “Hippa” Kriss, Maria A. Morales, N. David Prestwood, Sean Hall

PLOT: College graduate Herman moves into a house with a collection of odd roommates where he is challenged by a job with ill-defined purpose, a needy girlfriend, a strange creature who keeps stealing his socks, and the mystery of what happened to his predecessors.

Still from Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! (2003)

COMMENTS: A well-played joke can wash away a multitude of sins. Countless movies over the decades have managed to cast aside lazy plotting or shoddy filmmaking because the audience left the theater laughing. I remain convinced that the success of The Departed can be attributed in large part to Mark Wahlberg’s pitch-perfect delivery of a single snarky retort. So Hey, Stop Stabbing Me!, a movie possessing zero production values but lots of spunk and all-in commitment from a group of plucky amateurs, has one mark which it absolutely must hit. The team behind this movie knows it can’t compete when it comes to the look of the film or the professionalism of the acting. So they go for jokes. And those jokes have got to land.

More often than not, God bless ‘em, they do. Screenwriters Casey and Miller (of late the storytelling masterminds behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise) adopt the time-honored strategy of throwing jokes of every shape and kind against the wall in hopes that something will stick. All kinds of jokes. The wall is littered with the sheer number of jokes that have been thrown at it. And amazingly, a pretty solid percentage of them hit. The result is a movie that’s certainly not good, but ends up being pretty great.

The primary vein of comedy pursued here is a completely demented world that everyone absurdly buys into. This is, after all, a movie in which a serial killer systematically offs his roommates and buries them in the backyard, yet his actions go completely unnoticed by everyone around him. It’s the kind of thing that would be perfectly at home on Adult Swim (and the folks at Fox clearly thought the same, as they hired Casey and Miller to script the series “Golan the Insatiable” for their “Animation Domination” slate). But wisely, the writers don’t solely rely on this dissonance. There are so many other jokes to try. Among the other styles of comedy they pursue:

  • Satire – Herman puts his degree in World History to work at a job where he wears a tie while digging holes all day (if only he’d gotten that double major in Comparative Lit like everyone else!)
  • Slapstick – Herman takes it on the chin constantly: abandoned by his family, robbed by a Samaritan, and getting the stuffing beaten out of him on a regular basis, most entertainingly at the hands of an 12-year-old boy.
  • Taboo – Herman’s nymphomaniac girlfriend Carrie has a very dark secret, for which the film slyly lays the groundwork without spoiling its horrible reveal.
  • Sheer Goofiness –  Wuzzel, the mischievous mascot reject who stalks the house in pursuit of socks, drives Herman to literal distraction. Aside from being rambunctious, he’s also a vivid example of the movie leaning into its own weaknesses, looking as he does like a cheap gorilla costume with very visible human hands.
  • Contrast – All this takes place in the extremely nondescript Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington (full disclosure: my wife’s hometown). The surroundings are so bland and inoffensive that these characters pull off the trick of standing out and fitting right in at the same time.

The movie is also surprisingly well made. The use of video is unavoidably cheap, but Miller demonstrates a real visual wit, deploying depth of field, handheld scrappiness, and deft quick-pans to sell the gags. And the story moves at a terrific pace, jumping from set piece to set piece with barely a breath. Even if one joke misses, another is sure to follow.

I fear I’m overselling the end product; Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! was shot for $500 and looks it, created by amateurs and shows it, and treated as ridiculous and feels it. But on its own terms, it’s a genuine achievement, pulling off the feat of being simultaneously incredibly dumb and sneakily smart. Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! gives hope to anybody with an iPhone, good friends, a nutty premise, and a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A genuinely wacky and, at times, seriously funny horror send up that somehow avoids most of the clichés of the countless other SOV horror send ups made over the years, Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! might not win over those who don’t enjoy vintage no-budget endeavors, but then again… it might… this one moves very quickly, using Herman’s endless string of bad luck as a launching pad for all manner of unexpectedly bizarre occurrences, many of which build off of one another very effectively.” – Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSON END (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Roberts

FEATURING: Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, Denise Coffey, J. G. Devlin, Vivian Stanshall

PLOT: As villagers descend upon the English estate of Rawlinson End to celebrate The Blazing, the eccentric lord of the manor Sir Henry is persuaded to bring in outside help to exorcise the ghost of his unfortunate brother, whom he shot in an unfortunate hunting accident and who is unable to pass on to the next plane without his trousers.

Still from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The film incarnation of Vivian Stanshall’s spoken-word radio prattle series is a fitting adaptation. It’s a melange of relentless mockery of the English upper class, Dada-esque mishmash of characters and situations, full-bodied embrace of inappropriateness, inveterate wordplay, and plummy lost-up-its-own-duodenum narration, with a visual style that places one brow-raising tableau after another into a curiously nostalgic atmosphere. It’s nutty from the jump and never eases off.

COMMENTS: It seems that the first tale of the eccentric Sir Henry Rawlinson was a desperate improvisation, a last-minute creation of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band leader Vivian Stanshall to fill out the too-short B side of a new album. Among the lovers of Britain’s penchant for absurdist, nonsensical humor, Sir Henry was a hit, and Stanshall created new – well, stories doesn’t seem like the right words – installments on John Peel’s radio show, and then released them as spoken-word albums. So a transition to the silver screen is maybe not a surprise, but it is remarkable how many of its most uncinematic traits have made the jump untouched.

Viewers of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” might recognize the milieu, but the goings-on are something else entirely. Like a demented “Prairie Home Companion,” the “Rawlinson End” stories are meandering tales of a community filled from top to bottom with insane people doing insane things. Stanshall doesn’t look down on his creations, but he vividly reveals them for the defiantly venal, crude, and obnoxious people they are. The hoity-toity visitors could easily be renegades from ’s Upper Class Twit of the Year competition, while the help are no less mad, running miles from one end of the estate to the other and unspooling directionless monologues about the misfortunes of others. Happily, there is no tedious audience stand-in to remind you that these nutters are “not like us.” The only logic to be found here is the ill kind.

Barely a frame of film is allowed to flicker without a trace of absurdity: a man plays snooker while on horseback, a barbershop trio appears perched on the edge of a lake. Stilt walkers, vaudeville duos, Egyptian priestesses, all show up randomly and vanish as quickly. And if you long for consistency, well… so much flatulence. Every line of dialogue is overwrought; no ten-word sentence will be uttered when a 30-word polysyllabic phrase will do. Names are wonderfully absurd when they’re not blatantly vulgar. The wordplay is relentless and there’s nothing linear at all. You get the sense that if you chopped the film up into 5-minute segments and rearranged them, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Sir Henry is at the center of all this madness, and he’s more than worthy of it. As portrayed by the esteemed actor (and proud drinker) Trevor Howard, Sir Henry is bonkers above all others. Howard supposedly relished the role (which afforded him the chance to spew such bon mots as “If I had all the money I’d spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink”); and it’s unlikely anyone else was going to offer him a part where he could don blackface and a tutu and pretend to unicycle down a country path. He’s precisely as rude and officious as a member of the English landed gentry ought to be: he belittles the staff (“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth forcing someone else to do it”), shoots skeet with pretend paratroopers (when he’s not trying to gun down actual hang gliders), keeps his own personal German POW camp on the estate, and complains vociferously when the urine from a dead dog waters down his liquor. It’s a real credit to Howard that even amidst a film of crazies, he truly stands out.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is a triumph of nonsense. The hint of plot is immaterial to the proceedings; it’s about being batty. The closest the film comes to a mission statement arrives in the very last line of dialogue, a hint from the narrator about the action in a possible future tale: “There is considerable misunderstanding.”

Sadly, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is unavailable on streaming platforms, and can only be found on a Region 2 DVD (which will not play in most North American players). Hopefully this situation will be rectified in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Parts of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End could be described as being slightly Python-esque but such a comparison doesn’t really do this bizarre and determinedly unique and original film justice. While Sir Henry at Rawlinson End does contain its fair share of endearingly daft moments, it remains more than anything a genuinely surreal, uncompromising and biting social satire… If you can imagine a very English satirical comedy that just happens to quite naturally project the kind of intensely strange ambience that is more commonly associated with arthouse oddities like the Quay Brothers’ Institute Benjamenta, I guess you’re part way there.” – Lee Broughton, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by maxwell Stewart, who called it perhaps the strangest film ever made” and added “Viv Stanshall was a true genius.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)