Tag Archives: Black Comedy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COME TO DADDY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Ant Timpson

FEATURING: Elijah Wood, , Michael Smiley,  Martin Donovan

PLOT: Norval receives a letter from his long-estranged father, begging him to come to his remote home to reconnect; daddy is not who he seems, but he does have a lot of deadly associates holding long-simmering grudges.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The word “quirky” lurked around the back of my mind throughout the first half, until a plot spasm of strange violence brought the weird levels up to floodgate-breaking point.

COMMENTS: Appropriately for a plot that hinges on a theft, there is a whole lot of stealing in the movie: stealing of scenes (not to mention chewing of scenery). That’s to be expected from a film featuring some of the best characters actors in the business, each one-upping the other as the craziness volcano erupts. The heavy lifting (and grand larceny) is done most by Elijah Wood, who surprised me equally with his capacity to normalize the narrative while drawing attention to himself with perhaps the most nerd/hipster/pratt/ mama’s boy character I have ever seen. (While rocking one of the worst haircuts ever to grace the big screen.)

Wide-eyed, apprehensive Norval (Wood) steps off a bus close to the middle of nowhere, California, and walks on foot while rolling a massive suitcase along with him. When he arrives at “a UFO that crashed in the ’60s”-style cabin, he meets his father (Stephen McHattie), whom he has not seen for three decades. They bond, or try to, but mostly Norval endures of varying degrees of abuse. Norval is a recovering alcoholic who describes himself as a combination DJ, pianist, beat-layer, and event organizer; what his father describes him as I cannot type, but the description is apt. At one point mid-rant, his father’s dander rises so high that he has a fatal heart attack while threatening his boy with a butcher knife. Then what’s actually going on starts coming to light.

Watching it with a packed house on a Friday night, I noticed two related things: the audience was far too eager to laugh at things that probably warranted silence, and Come To Daddy‘s sheer oddness (and intensity) was insidious. Rabid fans of Stephen McHattie burst out laughing at the drop of a pin; I sat quietly wondering what, if anything, was going to make a payoff that warranted my attention. The arrival of Michael Smiley’s character (a kind of a twisted, drunken, deadbeat heir to A Field in England‘s effete and sinister O’Neal) turned out to be the harbinger of the film’s madness, and once this madness set in, it did not relent.

As I mentioned above, it doesn’t feel like a slow build up so much as a massive explosion. I came close to writing this off as a wasted outing, as I had with a previous Fantasia buzz-puffed disappointment, 68 Kill. Rarely have I been happier to have been proven wrong, as the investment of my time and focus handsomely paid off. I was left, though, with the burning question, how in Heaven’s name did they get Elijah “Frodo Baggins” Wood to go through this suffering on-screen? But good for him. I look forward to him embracing the role of character actor—albeit on a quite different pay scale than his confrères.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Come to Daddy’ struggles to maintain its zany energy through the final act, and a concluding hotel room showdown unfolds like a quirky, half-hearted sketch comedy in the shadow of the more alluring weirdness leading up to it. Even so, it’s punctuated by a violent act so cartoonish and bizarre it brings the story back to its strengths… the movie finds its way to a bizarre form of closure that illustrate Timpson’s confidence in this strange genre brew. By the end, it all suddenly clicks.”–Reic Kohn, Indiewire (festival screening)

1*. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

Katakuri-ke no kôfuku

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida,

PLOT: The Katakuri clan retires to a remote mountain area to run a bed and breakfast, but the place seems cursed, as every guest who stays there dies. The Katakuris try to cover up the deaths to avoid bad publicity, while frequently bursting into song and dance numbers.

Still from The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Happiness of the Katakuris is actually a remake (some say a “very loose” remake) of a Jee-woon Kim’s (non-musical) Korean black comedy The Quiet Family.
  • Miike made Katakuris the same year as Visitor Q, an even blacker comedy which also deals with the theme of a “happy” Japanese family. Katakuris and Q were two of a remarkable eight movies the prolific auteur released in 2001.
  • The Happiness of the Katakuris received the highest number of total votes in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it arguably the most popular weird movie left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll have to go with that little claymation yōkai/imp that pops out of a random diner’s soup and falls in love with her heart-shaped uvula—with bizarrely comic results.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Claymation infatuation; reanimated corpse song and dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Katakuri clan came about as close to making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made as possible; we held off honoring them partly because their movie, while weird indeed, was overlong and uneven, and partly because Takashi Miike was already well-represented with three Canonically Weird movies, and it was time to give someone else a shot. The movie’s inclusion on the secondary list of Apocrypha titles was assured, and it’s a highly appropriate choice for the inaugural title in our runners-up category.

Short clip from The Happiness of the Katakuris

COMMENTS: The Happiness of the Katakuris begins with a four-minute scene, which really has nothing to do with the rest of the Continue reading 1*. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

CAPSULE: RONDO (2019) (DVD RELEASE)

DIRECTED BYDrew Barnhardt

FEATURING: Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Reggie De Morton, Gena Shaw, Steve Van Beckum

PLOT: Paul has been dishonorably discharged from the military and relies on his sister’s hospitality for a couch to crash on; when she recommends a therapist to help him with PTSD and alcohol addiction, he encounters a sordid world where revenge and unhealthy fantasy experiences can be bought for the right price.

Lobby card from Rondo (2018)

COMMENTS: As I gear up for my third trip to the Fantasia Film Festival, I am unfortunately reminded that most of what I’ll be seeing up North won’t be available again for months (and months), if it’s released at all. With that in mind, I look back at my original gob-smacked review and consider whether or not Rondo lives up to the hype I expressed directly after my original “live” experience. In brief: it does.

My earlier review covers most of the bases, but I wanted to expand on how well Barnhardt manages Rondo‘s singular atmosphere. Its edge-of-realistic set-pieces present a grisly and tragic tale that are undercut by a narrator that borders on intrusive. Much to my shame, I hadn’t seen ‘s Barry Lyndon until some months ago, well after I nodded in understanding at Barnhardt’s remarks on it during my interview with him. Like the Kubrick epic, Rondo involves a string of events that, though much more in the vein of “thriller”, have a tone that’s on the unsettling side of banal—until, in both films, an impressively indifferent narrator articulates his views on the action. As I have no doubt that Barnhardt would quickly dispel any suggestion he’s at Kubrick’s level, I’ll merely say that Rondo has the feel of a whomping dubstep echo of Barry Lyndon‘s awkwardly laid-back narrative meanderings.

Without dispersing too much insider knowledge (I spoke with both Barnhardt and Guy Clark, the producer, for close to an hour after the interview proper was finished), I can tell you that Rondo was made for substantially less than its shiny veneer and honed camerawork suggest. Indeed, a large part of its modest budget went to the… expressive use of squibs in a pivotal scene. But like a sculptor given a slim brick of marble, Barnhardt (who also wrote the script, scouted locations, and was heavily involved in the casting of largely unknown actors) manages to chisel a tiny objet d’art: it’s charmingly crafted, bloodily lighthearted, impressively detailed, and the whole thing fits conveniently on your desk (or perhaps your knife-filled kitchen sink).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of highly assured genre filmmaking, and the mark of a real talent emerging from cinema’s more perverse, less salubrious end. ‘Ordinary’s not the thing that I want,’ as one character puts it. ‘I want the other thing.’ Rondo delivers just that, very satisfyingly.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

CAPSULE: DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

FEATURING: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Rikki Gagne, C.J. Wallis, Loyd Bateman

PLOT: Two young druggies and two young churchies find a dead hooker in their trunk and set out to dispose of the body while pursued by a serial killer and other slimeballs.

Still from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not one of the all-time strangest movies out there, though it’s OK as a first timers’ take on a low budget exploitation movie with a feminist slant—one that is weirder than it had to be.

COMMENTS: Absolutely faithful to the exploitative promise of the title, but still not exactly what you’d expect, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a nihilistic feminist punk black comedy with an absurd script and experimental tendencies. It plays out in a comic book reality that’s halfway between a modern Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and a film. It may also take place, as the character known only as “Junkie” suggests, in Purgatory (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Vancouver).

En route to scoring some “shit” for her bestie the Junkie, the Badass agrees to pick up Goody Two Shoes from his church youth group at the request of her sister, The Geek. Leaving the church, they immediately smell the dead hooker in their trunk, and after minimal debate about calling the cops, they decide instead to dispose of the evidence. So the quartet goes on the lam, checks into a sleazy motel, and has to deal with cops, drug gangs, a serial killer, and a cowboy pimp. Along the way they encourage necrophilia and meet God (in a cameo); characters lose eyeballs and arms, but emerge little the worse for wear. They also engage in a gruesome and fatal tooth-pulling torture session, lest you think this is all just innocent fun and games.

The Soska sisters indulge in some experimental aesthetics: for example, flashback scenes have dark lighting and rounded shadowy edges around the frame (sometimes with the sound of a projector running in the background). Most of the film is vérité style shot-on-video, particularly obvious during action scenes where the camera swerves around to catch the action, as if a documentary crew is filming the carnage live. Some people seem to enjoy the indie/punk soundtrack, which features several original songs, although I found it merely functional. I must say, however, that the filmmakers did a great job with makeup, and not just with the corny gore effects. Besides one symbolic moment where a teardrop tattoo appears and disappears, you never get confused as to which of the identical twin sisters is the Geek and which is the Badass; in fact, you might not even guess that the actresses were related.

Dead Hooker‘s rowdy screenplay emits a theme of female empowerment, in that the women (particularly the Badass) triumph over men who are driven to violence by sexual inadequacy. The main problem I had with the film, however, is that I never liked the characters the way the script wanted me to. The two “good” characters put up only token resistance to the criminality of the two “bad” characters. Although the foursome bonds with each other through their trials, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them. The group makes an appeal for sympathy with the adoption of an abandoned dog, but then they blow all that goodwill with the tone-deaf torture/revenge scene. Getting audiences to root for reprobates is always a hard sell; it’s only the pitiless antiheroes who never show any sign of remorse or goodness (like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat) that come off best. By not caring whether we like them, they make us love them, whereas Dead Hooker‘s antiheroines can come across as too desperate for our approval.

The Soska sisters moved on to bigger budgets after making this debut film for a reported $2,500 (!) Dead Hooker was re-released on a limited edition Blu-ray in 2019, although given its low-fi origins, it’s hard to imagine the picture benefits much from a high definition presentation. The disc does contain a commentary track from the sisters, not available on previous releases. Next up for the twins: a remake of fellow Canadian ‘s Rabid, due out in late 2019 or early 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As cheap, meretricious and disposable as its titular character, this countercultural road movie may be a puerile mishmash of low-rent clichés and in-your-face transgression (with just a smattering of Weekend at Bernie’s), but it is just about knowing enough to get away with it – as long as you approach it with the right (which is to say lowered) kind of expectation.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

CHANNEL 366: “CATCH-22” (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras,

FEATURING: , Kyle Chandler, Daniel David Stewart, Grant Heslov, George Clooney

PLOT: In the Italian theater of World War II, terrified American bombardier Yossarian seeks any way he can find out of the Air Force, but his commander continues to find an excuse to raise the number of required missions every time he gets close to being discharged.

Still from Catch-22 (2019 TV miniseries)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you adapt Joseph Heller’s absurd novel literally, you might make the List, but you’ll never get George Clooney to sign on to the project. If you make it literal and not absurd, you can get it on Hulu for six commerical-funded episodes, but it will never make our List. It’s a Catch-366!

COMMENTS: A recommendation on an off-topic sports forum described Hulu’s 2019 version of “Catch-22” as “like M*A*S*H*, but darker.” That nails it for anyone not familiar with the original source material. The M*A*S*H* book/movie/TV series franchise, while witty, was an ersatz, popularized Catch-22, where the existential absurdity of war as a grand metaphor was pre-digetsed into a parade of wisecracks and hijinks, counterculture pacifist slogans, and simplified bureaucratic satire for the anti-Vietnam crowd. Funny, still, but no longer profoundly so.

It would be tempting to assume that every reader is intimately familiar with both Joseph Heller’s novel and (canonically weird!) 1970 movie adaptation, and spill a lot of digital ink in listing and critiquing each plot detour the new adaptation takes. But that would be of little interest to the casual reader. Nevertheless, even for those unfamiliar with the source material, discussion of the changes the writers made will give insight into their mindset and the tone they were going for—and give a sense of what may be missing that made the original so revolutionary. In the extra features (available to watch on Hulu alongside the episodes), the writers are forthcoming in explaining that they wanted to simplify the story to aid viewers’ comprehension. The most crucial change is that they take Heller’s disorienting, jumping-about-in-time narrative and rewrite it so it occurs chronologically, “so that the characters can have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end,” to bypass Heller’s “dense, kaleidoscopic chaos.” They also sanitize Heller’s relentless, repetitive, circular wordplay, scripting most exchanges as realistic, natural-sounding dialogue. In other words, they felt duty-bound to conventionalize everything.

These decisions makes the tale easier to follow, sure, but at what cost? Heller’s “chaos” was a deliberate thematic choice, reflecting his attitude to both his protagonist and the world, and toying with it inevitably changes the story. Sometimes it does so in minor ways: it seems to me that Major Major is a funnier character before his backstory is revealed (the movie didn’t even bother to go into  Major’s personal history, and the character worked just fine). A poignant reveal about the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent is destroyed by telling the tale front-to-back. On a more serious note, a rape that was only implied in the novel and movie becomes an unnecessarily graphic and unpleasant scene in episode 5, a giant misstep in tone; then, the outrageous aftermath of the atrocity (one of the great ironic moments of the novel and film) is played so realistically that it barely registers on the black comedy scale. (The victim is also different, which is the first indicator that Heller’s ending has been scrapped.) The rejiggering of the plot does allow for a greatly expanded (and funny) role for George Clooney as Scheisskopf, the boys’ original parade-obsessed flight instructor, who is now more bully than fool, and as vindictive as incompetent. The book’s finale is completely changed; to be fair, the ending they came up with makes for a great image that comes across better onscreen than it would have on the page. It’s also more in the spirit of Heller’s hilarious nihilism than much else in the film.

It would have been hard for this series to match the movie’s classic cast: , , Bob Newhart, , Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin. Clooney supplies the lone star power here, with veteran character actors filling out the officer brigade, while fresh faces do well as the hapless cannon fodder. As Yossarian, Christopher Abbott lacks the befuddled outrage of Alan Arkin, but he grows on you. Arkin’s Yossarian was a principled coward, a holy fool who made self-preservation his preeminent moral value. Abbott’s yellow streak is both darker and more pragmatic; the characterization is more believable, but less meaningful.

The series looks good, with a color palette that might be described as “Mediterranean sepia.” The soundtrack is nostalgic contemporary swing that often has an ironic tinge.

Paradoxically, a realist take on an unreal novel is, in its way, brave and unexpected. While those of us who are fans of Heller’s masterpiece may struggle to hold back our resentment, newcomers for whom this is their first exposure to the book (and/or movie) will dig it just fine, and will have better things to look forward to from Catch-22 in the future.

“Catch-22” can be viewed free by Hulu subscribers, or downloaded digitally from Amazon and other streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Heller’s protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, [the creators] respond to the crazy ambition of Heller’s novel by choosing not to engage… Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RHINOCEROS (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Tom O’Horgan

FEATURING: , , Zero Mostel

PLOT: Stanley is an alcoholic accountant. Everyone else turns into a rhinoceros.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: O’Horgan’s adaptation of an absurdist play features too much stagey kookiness to work well as a film—which is a pity, because it has a weird premise that, when the tone is right, shows the potential it had as an unsettling commentary on the nature of man.

COMMENTS: Before ascending to the lofty heights of film criticism, I led a something of an artistically minimal life between college and my first reader-submitted review. So it is with a long-stretched arm that I reach back to my school days of Theater Drama, particularly when I was an assistant director my senior year of high school. Through early college I occasionally partook in what Tom O’Horgan described as “a ritualized version of a piece of art”, both offstage and on it. I bring you this somewhat long-winded reminiscence so that you may believe when I say: “theater” and “film” are two entirely different beasts.

As an adaptation of an absurdist bit of theater, the fine points of Hippopotamus‘ plot are inconsequential. Indeed, my summary above could probably be trimmed by a word or two. That said, I regret to inform you even the incredible talent of Gene Wilder on screen fails to compensate for the scattershot approach O’Horgan takes off of it. Half of it is too stagey—with an unfortunate tilt toward “zany”—which compromises Rhinoceros in two ways. First, the handful of scenes of rhino-related destruction and transformation come across as, “Look at how off-the-wall and Damn-the-conventions we are!” Second, Rhinoceros is only a comedy in the same way that Waiting for Godot is: the small snippets of absurd humor are only there to (thinly) paper over the underlying message about the dispiriting pointlessness of life.

On occasion, though, O’Horgan manages to hit the right tone. A scene with Stanley, Gene Wilder’s character, slinking—late—into the office after a discussion about Race, Religion, Capitalism, and Other Topics Found In Plays, crescendos into some buffoonery. It is immediately followed by a haunting interlude where Stanley leaves a subway car, elbowing past faceless masses, passed by faceless pedestrians and workers as he walks the streets. They aren’t actually faceless, they just have hats, buckets, anything covering them. Like the guilty revelers after a crazy party, they shun others’ gazes as they realize the epidemic’s magnitude: who will be next? This is echoed in an altogether strange hallway walk through fear, hitting an apex with a dream sequence/musical number that finds Stanley in a zoo cage as his work-crush cavorts with his friend.

Rhinoceros is almost saved by the presence of Gene Wilder. He seems to be the only one who got the memo that this project was being recorded on film as a movie. As the scene demands, he has a subtlety of expression, a softness of tenor, or a naturalistic reaction to the absurdness around him. If O’Horgan had grasped this need for understatement, the movie would have been a Certifiable genius piece of work. As it stands, the viewer can only hope for snippets of unnerving pathos littered sparsely through a big dish of hammy excess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…not ideal film material, being an example of the kind of theater of the absurd that should be played like old-time farce within a stylized, three-sided set or, perhaps, within no set at all. Even though the film never shows us any real rhinoceroses, the realism of the movie camera is undeniable. It reduces things absurd to the status of the merely silly.” –Vincent Canby, New York Times (contemporaneous)