Tag Archives: Black Comedy

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.

Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).

Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.

Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.

The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut.  The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

CAPSULE: HAPPINESS (1998)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dylan Baker, , Cynthia Stevenson, , , , Louise Lasser

PLOT: An examination of the lives of three sisters, their extended families, and their neighbors reveals an elaborate network of secrets, sickness, perversion, and chronic unhappiness.

Still from Happiness (1998)

COMMENTS: Happiness presents a challenge to reviewers, but as difficult as is to write about, it’s not half as hard as it is to watch. Filled with reference to rape and pedophilia, along with near-constant mental cruelty and depression, the movie is one long trigger warning. Happiness doesn’t hold back; it always “goes there.” Side characters who initially seem like they might be oases of sanity and kindness turn out to be just as rotten inside as the principals. It is, technically, a black comedy, but the few grim jokes only highlight the nightmarishness of the character’s existence. The ironies only start with the title, a main character named “Joy,” and a soundtrack of schmaltzy soft-rock including Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and a version of “You Light Up My Life” performed by a Russian cabbie on the make. This is one dark movie.

With those warnings out of the way, the “must see” rating is warranted, for those with just a little bit of courage. Happiness is masterfully manipulative, totally assured in its execution, and totally ruthless in its worldview. The script is wicked and nuanced, the actors expert in nailing the difficult tone. It is a triumph of fearless cynicism; and yet, while it clearly hates its characters, it also oddly empathizes with them. They are allowed to feel guilt, suffering for their sins, while simultaneously being powerless to change their own destructive behaviors. This makes the movie as sad as it is scathing.

Happiness‘ alchemical majesty comes from successfully mixing strong emotions that should be incompatible. It’s not just the paring of comedy with dark situations. In truth, the movie isn’t all that funny, although it has a couple of conventional comedy moments (such as the psychiatrist zoning out while his patient complains that people find him boring, or Joy becoming a “scab” at an ESL program). Happiness‘ brand of bone-dry humor is really a precursor to contemporary anti-comedy, exemplified by an exchange between sisters Helen (Boyle) and Joy (Adams) that could be the movie’s comic manifesto. After Joy makes an innocent comment that Helen thinks is stupid, the elder sister bursts out in mock laughter, then consoles the younger: “Don’t worry,” she hisses, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you.” Her sister’s confused response: “But I’m not laughing.”

Even more than its juxtaposition of humor and horror, the film succeeds by mixing its meanness with sorrow: Dylan Baker’s climactic tear-stained confession is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartrending. (The performances are uniformly excellent, but it seems odd that standout Baker never landed another major role: playing a child molester must be career suicide in Hollywood.) Happiness is, as noted, a very sad movie.

Is it a weird movie? I’d say no, although it is a unique one. Its unflinchingly downbeat, relentlessly derisive tone puts it well outside of mainstream entertainment. To the extent that we might claim it for the weird, it’s only due to its often exaggerated nature. Scenes play as the tiniest bit unreal: Bill’s conversations with his pre-adolescent son are perverted parodies of “Leave it to Beaver” chats. Catty conversations between the sisters are franker and more biting than they would be in reality. Horrible things are said in deadpan, and received with ambiguous expressions suggesting a mixture of alarm and bamboozlement. Detached artifice is pierced by real human emotion. That is not, in my mind, enough to get Happiness all the way to “weird” (though it certainly passes the “offbeat” marker); but at least I can see what the movie’s proponents are talking about.

Strangely, although it’s remembered by everyone who saw it and critically acclaimed, at the present time Happiness is nearly unobtainable. No streamer seems brave enough to take it on, the DVD has gone out of print, and it has never been issued on Blu-ray. I wouldn’t expect this sad situation to last forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine, 2016 reassessment

(This movie was nominated for review by “CheapSwillBill” who commented “A list of weird movies that doesn’t mention Happiness? That’s weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jalmari Helander

FEATURING: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Jonathan Hutchings

PLOT: On the Finnish/Russian border, an excavation crew disturbs an evil that has been buried for centuries—the real Santa Claus!

Still from Rare Exports (2010)

COMMENTS: Set in a chilly Lapland that’s eerily devoid of women (the fairer sex are, apparently, even rarer than Santa Claus), Rare Exports is a slow-burn horror marketed as a black comedy. It wears its coat of absurdity lightly, taking its  outré premise about a monstrous Christmas spirit with, if not utmost seriousness, at least the same amount of gravitas that you’d expect from a B-movie about summoning a standard-issue Hollywood demon. It always helps an enterprise like this when you can get a good performance from a child actor. Young Pietari, whose father requires him to close his eyes when he enters the slaughterhouse so he won’t be traumatized by reindeer corpses, starts off still believing in a benevolent gift-giving Santa. The boy grows into (naturally) the only one who recognizes the danger posed by Santa, and eventually into the savior of his small village. Dressed for much of the movie in improvised armor—a hockey helmet and shoulderpads—young Onni Tommila, alternately quizzical and confident, outshines the older actors, who all play rustic stoics.

Despite a surprising amount of geriatric nudity, Rare Exports is not really a weird movie—but it was an original one when it was released in 2010. Aside from the similarly-themed but little-seen Santa’s Slay (2005), previous Christmas horrors had been almost exclusively slasher flicks about madmen obsessed with Santa Claus who dressed up like the jolly old elf for their killing sprees. Rare Exports instead identified Santa himself as evil—recalling his legendary Finnish origins as Joulupukki, the “Yule Goat.” This movie inspired other horror filmmakers to research the darker side of Yuletide legends, leading to the rediscovery of Krampus and a series of competing films about the Christmas devil. In other words, Rare Exports launched a sub-genre (the demonic Christmas spirit) inside a sub-genre (the holiday-themed horror).

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale derives from two short films from the same director, and serves as a sort of prequel. The shorts are presented as instructional videos, and are more obviously in the black comedy rather than the horror vein. Not to get too deep into spoiler territory, but the shorts suggest “Father Christmases” are a separate, feral species, without acknowledging the single demigod known as “Santa Claus.” The mythos described by the shorts is weirder than that in the feature, and the two don’t seem entirely compatible. In fact, the ending of the feature doesn’t make as much sense independently without seeing the shorts; for most of the film, we are asked to accept on faith the notion that possession of the original Santa Claus would be worth a lot of money, without a sense of how he could be commercially exploited. For my money, the universe of the shorts is superior—the problem being that it’s too much of a one-joke a premise to support an entire movie, which is why the expanded version leans into horror rather than comedy. For the best experience, watch the shorts and the feature in tandem for two different takes on the same basic idea. If you’re the kind of person who liked the Grinch better before his heart grew three sizes, Rare Exports may become a holiday staple at your house. It beats the 200th screening of the usual chestnuts, at least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

(This movie was nominated for review by “Paul Singleton,” who dubbed it “an excellent movie and very strange to say the least. This one will be certified weird by you guys at some point.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LUCKY (2004)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Cuden

FEATURING: Michael Emanuel, David Reivers, Piper Cochrane

PLOT: An alcoholic writer finds inspiration when a stray dog starts telepathically dictating scripts to him—and then orders him to kill.

Still from Lucky (2004)

COMMENTS: Lucky is an ugly little movie—shot on video, dimly lit, and occurring almost entirely in one trash-strewn house—but that may be an appropriate aesthetic, since the story is about an ugly little man.

Lucky begins as a black comedy about Millard Mudd, a schluby alcoholic writer specializing in cartoon scripts. Early on, there’s a long series of sketches where Mudd goes on “dates” with various women: a masochistic prostitute, a nun, his own half-sister. These segments employ an R-rated type of sitcom humor, with a mild touch of the surreal. Even when there’s a decapitation by chainsaw, the severed head is so silly and unrealistic that the effect is light. But things take a turn toward the grindhouse when the talking dog Lucky arrives and grows increasingly abusive in his telepathic dialogues. Mudd’s loose hold on his mind slips further, and he gives himself over to sadomasochistic sex fantasies. An interlude where he discusses the tortures he plans to inflict on his victim as she lies there bound and nude, objecting to his plans with no greater distress than if he had insisted on ordering out for pizza when she was in the mood for sushi, is particularly disturbing. For the final murders, even the pretense of comedy fades away. The way the perversity slowly ratchets up, while (mostly) maintaining the same deadpan style throughout, shows skill, but obviously won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The editing is good, shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality to create a sense of pace and action that the producers  couldn’t otherwise afford. The acting is adequate—the most impressive performance, perhaps, is given by Sydney the dog as Lucky (kudos to her trainer). And while it would be hard to make the case that the movie as a whole succeeds as more than a curiosity, the screenplay (by Stephen Sustarsic, who had previously produced scripts for “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”) is actually solid. Much of the story is told through Mudd’s internal monologues, a technique which locks you into his mindset and makes the movie seem like a translation of a novella. The speeches never feel too intrusive or like they are substituting for something that could have been conveyed with action, and they’re always to the point. Lines like “I made three big changes during my life. I switched beers when I was sixteen. I switched back when I was thirty. And I killed a girl last week” tell you all you need to know about the character—and all you need to know about the movie. That quote either intrigues you, or immediately turns you off.

We waited so long to review this one, unfortunately, that the DVD went out of print, and the film is not available streaming. Used DVDs should be obtainable, if you are interested.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No matter how weird things get, you’re willing to follow this character along his twisted little journey, hoping that maybe he can pull himself out of this hell he has created for himself.”–Film Threat (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jasper Oliver,” who explained, “On paper it looks like standard cheapo horror comedy fare but in actuality it’s an immensely flawed and disturbing little film that sits with you long after viewing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)