Tag Archives: Black Comedy

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2020: HANGOVER CAPSULE: DINNER IN AMERICA (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rehmeier

FEATURING: , Emily Skeggs

PLOT: Simon, the incognito frontman of the hyper-underground punk group “Psy-Ops”, is low on cash and on the run for arson charges when he has a meet-cute with a hyper-medicated superfan named Patty.

COMMENTSDinner in America is about as quirky a movie as I’d ever dare to recommend on this website. It’s a romantic comedy at heart, with strangely sweet romance and often savage comedy. It’s apt, also, that I write this review while hungover (or as hungover as a teetotaler can hope to be). The driving force and fury behind Dinner in America is one of the most punk of rockers ever to emerge from upper-class suburbia.

Don’t tell Victor (Kyle Gallner, with the mien of a latter day Thomas Howard) that I know his secret background, otherwise he’d smack me upside the head with a metal bat and then light fire to my house. We follow his journey from being a drug tester (where we see his first dinner, on which he loses his lunch) to a smitten jail-bird as he escapes from one scrape after another, spouting enough rage to power a small abattoir. The leading lady, Patty (a truly fascinating Emily Skeggs), is so far down the rabbit-hole of “manic pixie dream girl” that she’s on five different medications to have the merest veneer of normal. She is obsessed with “John Q. Public,” the lead singer of a punk band that’s so underground that their front man is on the run both from the law and from his privileged background.

The simmering rage in Dinner in America is hard to process: every character we encounter comes from a comfortable suburban background. However, as the story progresses, we learn that life’s edges are only smoothed over by money, ranch homes, and pre-fab gourmet dinners. There’s more than a hint of Teorema to be found, as Victor enters the lives of several strangers and immediately takes an axe to their civilized pretenses. In his first visit, he manages to seduce the mother, unhinge the daughter, and absolutely infuriate the racist father before smashing through their bay window and setting fire to their lawn. At dinner with Patty’s family, he adopts the guise of the son of missionaries and in the process liberates a household so weighed down by cyclical tedium that its patriarch is overwhelmed by the “heat” of unspiced beef.

Dinner In America‘s tone is best explained by the presence of Ben Stiller as the first-credited producer. (There’s even a nod to his Royal Tenenbaums character: of the long menu of jerks in this movie, the two worst are these upper-class track and field prats who are only seen out of their pristine track suits when Victor gets one up on them with a metal bat and a dead cat.) And the spirit of Syd Vicious lives on in the fractured singer, who only finds purpose in the form of hyper-weird, hyper-innocent Patty. Like the line from the track those two cut in his folks’ (mansion’s) basement, this is a sweet film in the “Fuck ’em all but us” vein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the best, and weirdest, rom-com in years.”–Joey Keough, Vague Visages (festival screening) [link requires subscription]

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

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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Recommended

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)