Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: ESCAPE FROM THE ‘LIBERTY’ CINEMA (1990)

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Marczewski

FEATURING: Janusz Gajos, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Teresa Marczewska, Piotr Fronczewski, Wladyslaw Kowalski

PLOT: There’s a problem at the Liberty Cinema screening of a new movie, and it isn’t projector or sound issues: the film’s cast has decided to boycott their performance on screen, leaving the head censor nonplussed, particularly as there’s a concurrent outbreak of spontaneous opera singing afflicting the city’s populace.

COMMENTS: The world’s weariest apparatchik is having a bad day. His head is pounding, his hand is cut from a broken drinking glass, his stomach is wrenching after consuming contaminated tap water, his assistant eats cotton candy at a staggering rate despite admonitions otherwise, and his secretary informs him that actors in the film being screened at a local cinema have gotten stroppy and refuse to perform. What is our hero to do? True to his background, he forbids it, categorically: he forbids the theater manager’s sudden singing, he forbids the actors’ boycott, and most emphatically of all, he forbids the eating of cotton candy.

But it’s in vain.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema was made and released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Poland, but is set during the bureaucratic death throes of that regime. When news of the screen actors’ rebellion reaches him, the local Communist party boss insists that the film play on—to sold-out shows, no less—but without attendees. “There will be cinema, but no viewers,” because if the Party likes anything, it’s being a bastion of (legitimate) art. If it likes two things, it’s hitting quotas, and so the money for the sold-out shows is extracted from a welfare fund manager who wants a spot on the local Party council. Deterioration—of the buildings, of the social fabric, of the soul—permeates the setting. The city’s denizens are so worn down they can’t even bother to rebel any more, leaving Art to don the mantle of subversion: either through the film’s recalcitrant performers, or the citizen’s spontaneous outbursts of opera, against their will.

Despite its full-throated cynicism, Escape is, somehow, a comedy. Our censor-hero is an eminently relatable character. As he witnesses the district’s descent into art-house subversion, his ailments alleviate, and he even gets in some laughs chatting with the performers on display at the ‘Liberty’. The projectionist practices poor English, seemingly responding to job (or consulate?) interview questions running through his mind as he prepares the reels, again and again, three times a day, to screen for an empty house. The cotton-candy chomping assistant receives elocution lessons from the in-movie movie’s leading lady, eventually wrapping his mouth around the correct pronunciation of, “Give me back the coat!”

Writer/director Marczewski mercilessly skewers authorities—even raising the specter of Poland’s complicity with the Nazis’ genocide—but simultaneously loves each of his film’s characters. I can imagine he may even have written himself in as the wunderkind critic sent from Warsaw. Seated in the front row, this impish boy of a man beams with pride when he shows off “true” cinema (appropriately, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to the Communist functionaries. Beyond even his successful social commentary, Marczewski somehow manages to meld utmost cynicism with tender pathos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very clever absurdist comedy that can be enjoyed either with or without its sharp social and political commentary…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

CAPSULE: DEERSKIN (2019)

Le Daim

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel

PLOT: A middle-aged man becomes obsessed with his new deerskin jacket.

Still from Deerskin (2019)

COMMENTS: “Sorry, but isn’t your movie weird?” One suspects Quentin Dupieux lifted that line verbatim from his own life experiences for this screenplay. It’s one of many self-references in Deerskin, whose main character is a delusional fraud1 posing as an independent filmmaker while undergoing a midlife crisis.

Never fear, Deerskin—a movie about a man, a leather jacket, and the destructive pledge that binds the two together—is indeed a weird movie. But considering the manic maximalism of Dupieux’s last major outing—2014’s Reality, which seemed like it had about fifteen interweaving subplots in a dreams-inside-of-dreams structure—Deerskin is relatively restrained, focused on only two major characters and a single absurd conceit. In that sense, it’s almost a ian film. Indeed, aside from the odd opening (which will be explained later) and a scene of Jean Dujardin flushing his corduroy jacket down a public toilet, nothing beyond the moderately quirky occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes. Dujardin’s character is clearly not all there, and occasional horror movie violin strikes suggest looming disaster, but its not until his deerskin jacket starts talking back to him that Dupieux leans into the scenario’s inherent eccentricity. The idea that we see the film from Dujardin’s insane perspective “explains” his strange activities for the rest of the movie, and perhaps makes it more palatable for general audiences not accustomed to the dream-logic universes Dupieux typically creates.

Dupieux likely slows down the craziness in order to take advantage of Dujardin’s presence. The stately actor is Deerskin‘s biggest asset, and the movie is almost Dupieux’s take on a character study. We suspect that the idea of an abstract, arty study of a man in the midst of an existential crisis is what attracted the French star to the project. Ruggedly handsome, if growing a bit paunchy, with a distinguished touch of grey in his beard, Dujardin creates a character who is deeply insecure and ridiculous—because he’s both vain and a bit dim. Unmoored and wandering, fleeing a relationship for reasons unstated, Dujardin gives his withered self-confidence a coat of luster with the deerskin jacket, which he believes gives him a “killer style” that everyone envies and talks about. But, in his mind, it’s not enough that he own the world’s coolest jacket—wouldn’t it be better if he owned the world’s only jacket?

The jacket concurs.

I don’t know if Deerskin‘s subdued style really fits Dupieux’s talents. He’s always been an over-the-top auteur with a unique voice, and his lack of restraint in focusing his ideas has always been a key part of that voice. I can’t say that maturity and self-reflection fits him any better than Dujardin’s too-tight jacket fits his character. Although Deerskin may be a bit easier for the neophyte to buy into than Dupieux’s previous larks, I’d still recommend the novice start off by jumping into the deep end with the slasher spoof Rubber, where the director sets out his bold manifesto of “no reason.” You can circle back to Deerskin later and see if you think the director is aging gracefully, or if he needs a truly wild midlife crisis of his own to remind him of his youth.

Deerskin is a victim of 2020’s pandemic, unable to receive even the usual limited release in theaters. Distributor Greenwich Entertainment is releasing it online and sharing half the revenue with the local theaters who would usually screen it; you can find a list of participating institutions at this link. The movie hits home video in late June.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Deerskin’ is funny, weird and original; it features two charismatic stars, and it does everything it needs to do in only 77 minutes.”–Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Sonja Kinski, Flula Borg, Honey Davis

PLOT: Mike Pinkney is an aspiring director living in East Hollywood, where he dreams of making his passion project: a remake of Carrie featuring an all-cat cast. No one is interested in his work, so he makes ends meet by working as a dog groomer, where he meets a beautiful woman who improbably agrees to go out on a date with him. Unfortunately, his run-down rental house suffers from a rat infestation that threatens to ruin his big chance with his dream girl.

Still from She's Allergic to Cats (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Michael Reich and star Mike Pinkney had previously worked as co-directors on music videos for Ryan Adams, the Shins, My Chemical Romance, Yuck, and other bands.
  • Reich wrote the part explicitly for Pinkney. They took acting classes together to prepare, which is where they met Sonja (daughter of Nastassja, granddaughter of ) Kinski.
  • The movie was shot in Reich’s own house and neighborhood. Honey Davis, who plays the landlord in the movie, was Reich’s landlord at the time.
  • Parts of She’s Allergic to Cats were inspired by director’s Michael Reich’s work as a dog groomer in Hollywood, where he expressed the anal glands of pooches belonging to George Carlin and , among other celebrities.
  • It took the movie four years from its film festival debut to finally be released on video-on-demand.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick from two briefly glimpsed images from the climactic montage: a naked woman holding a bowl of rotting bananas while rats crawl over her, or a naked woman whose upper half is a banana. We’ll accept either answer. (If you’re looking for a non-nude pick, Sonja Kinski posing seductively with a DVD of Congo is your go to).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Sensual dog grooming instructional video; anal gland expression

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In She’s Allergic to Cats, dog groomer Mike Pinkney bashfully confesses to “making weird video art that nobody wants to watch.” He’s wrong. Somebody wants to watch this portrait of a pathetic artist struggling to make an all-cat version of Carrie while dealing with a rat infestation and an internal video monologue that consists of glitchy nightmares run through a circa 1989 public access AV board. That somebody is you.


Original trailer for She’s Allergic to Cats

COMMENTS: The old writer’s cliche is to “write what you know.” The danger of this advice, of course, is that, if every aspiring writer  Continue reading 6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IN FABRIC (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, , Hayley Squires, Julian Barratt

PLOT: Sheila, a divorcee in the market for a new man, purchases a new red dress for a series of dates; things do not turn out well for her. Separately, Reg Speaks is a washing machine repairman about to marry is longtime girlfriend; after wearing that same red dress on his stag night, things turn out poorly for him, as well.

Still from In Fabric (2018)

COMMENTS: For capsule reviews, we aim to describe the action in one sentence. However, among the number of odd things about In Fabric is the fact that this is really two films in one: a pretty good feature-length story about Sheila’s experiences with a cursed red dress, and a much weirder, shorter film about Reg’s experiences with that same dress. There are plenty of strange things going on in this movie, and in many ways it should qualify for apocryphally weird status. Unfortunately, while the graft is forgivable, it fails overall.

Peter Strickland, who wrote and directed, clearly has an obsession with 1970s exploitation—his two previous films both focus on that decade and that genre—and his penchant for shines through brightly. The red of the dress and the red lighting of the strange advertisements for “Dentley and Sopers Trusted Department Store” are the most obvious tributes, with the movie’s palette generally mimicking whatever evil form of technicolor was used by the original giallists. In Fabric could be viewed as a love letter to that arty vein of horror, albeit a letter with an incredibly long postscript.

I enjoyed watching this, despite a glaring flaw: it was difficult to commit to the characters. Sheila’s tale ultimately left me indifferent, but the story of “Reg Speaks” was more in the transcendent mold, almost literally. Reg’s last name is strange, but apt. Though a lowly washing machine mechanic, he has something of a super power: the ability to bring listeners to an orgasmic trance while speechifying on the finer details of the problems vexing broken machines. In the world of In Fabric his reputation is such that even the bank managers whom he sees about a loan know about it, and want him to do a “role-playing” exercise so they can enjoy his mesmeric talents. (Julian Barratt plays one of these bank managers, with a performance that expertly rides along the razor’s edge of hilarious and mundane. Describing a memo about having a “meaningful handshake”, he explains, “It’s written in a fun, easy language, with a cartoon at the end that summarizes key points.”)

Fatma Mohamed, as the chief store clerk, stands out among the madness. She makes one believe she could be an alien, a demon, or perhaps a mannequin brought to life by some eccentric paranormal force. Her lines (“The hesitation in your voice: soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail” or “dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements”) sound like ornately translated Italian as delivered by a supernatural facsimile of a sales woman.

Strickland will hopefully sort his visions out enough to make that truly weird, and truly worthwhile, movie in the future (under the guidance, perhaps, of Ben Wheatley, executive producer here). But, measuring In Fabric, we find all the pieces are there, but he’s crafted something altogether ill-fitting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s less engaging is the suspicion that neither of these stories was substantial enough for a feature film on their own, and so they were combined to make a justifiable whole. The film’s demented satire of consumer culture and weird diversions into psychosexual nightmare fuel are less reliant on a coherent narrative arc, however, and Strickland’s unique ability to convey the sense of touch in an audio-visual medium isn’t dependent on story at all.”–Katie Rife, The AV Club (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE DEATH OF DICK LONG (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Abbott, Jr., Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Virginia Newcomb

PLOT: Two dimwitted band members try to cover up the suspicious death of the third member of their trio in a small town.

Still from The Death of Dick Long (2019)

COMMENTS: “Hey… ya’ll mfers wanna get weird?,” asks the eponymous (and still living) Dick Long in the opening scene. The Death of Dick Long does get—sort of—weird, though not in the way you might be expecting from half of the directing duo behind Swiss Army Man. Like the crude joke in the movie’s title, which makes you think you’re headed for a raunchy redneck comedy, the word “weird” is a little bit of misdirection. Though the movie is set in Alabama, the “weird” here is of the species you’d expect to see in a headline beginning with the words “Florida Man…”

Initially submitted as a regional black comedy with subtle situational humor, Death quickly moves to dealing with the consequences of the trio’s “weird” night, which we gather must have involved something more intense than the beer bongs, joints and fireworks we see in the opening montage. At first, Dick’s body (which his bandmates surreptitiously dump at the emergency room door in the wee hours) is unidentified, and the precise cause of death unknown. Zeke and Earl aren’t too good at coverups, but fortunately for them the hometown cops—led by a sheriff with a cane and her friendly lesbian deputy—aren’t too good at solving unexpected crimes, even when the suspects literally hand them clues. The first half settles into a Fargo-esque groove that we’ve seen before, as sleep-deprived Zeke forgets to cover up bloodstains and neither conspirator shows much skill at improvising cover stories under pressure. Then, around the midway point, Dick Long takes its outrageous premise and, unexpectedly, wrings serious drama out of it. This tonal shift was a huge gamble, but it pays off.

The acting, from a string of unfamiliar and semi-familiar faces, is universally strong—actually, close to great. Michael Abbott, Jr. handles the lead with tragicomic aplomb. He doesn’t want the secret to get out, sure, but he’s even more afraid of losing his wife and child, which makes it easy to root for him despite his duplicity. His buddy Earl (Andre Hyland) is a comic foil and kind of a dick, a vapin’ fool whose philosophy of life distills down to a beer and a shrug. Sarah Baker makes you think that someday soon she might grow up to be Alabama’s answer to Marge Gunderson. Virginia Newcomb has a supporting role as Zeke’s wife, but gets a major moment when hubby awkwardly and reluctantly confesses after inconsistencies in his story give him no other choice. The smaller roles are handled with equal ability. Scheinert deserves credit for assembling and guiding this fine ensemble.

The Death of Dick Long put in a token appearance in theaters before showing up on a extras-free DVD and Blu-ray in December. This solo outing for Scheinert does not mean that he’s broken up with directing partner . The Daniels are currently at work on a new project, Everything Everywhere All at Once, described as an “interdimensional action film.” 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Never remotely as goofy as [Swiss Army Man] but still bizarre in its own way, it’s sort of difficult to believe the film exists. But in a post-Mother and Sorry to Bother You world, perhaps anything can… takes a turn for the weird around the halfway point, and what happens shouldn’t be spoiled…”–Justin Jones, CBR