Tag Archives: Black Comedy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UMBILICAL WORLD (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of David Firth, Paul MacKenzie, Christian Webb

PLOT: A remixed collection of David Firth’s absurdist flash animation cartoons, like “Salad Fingers” and “Health Reminder,” assembled into a stream-of-consciousness feature with some new material.

Still from Umbilical World (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The nature of the project—an anthologized (though “remixed”) collection of previously published material as opposed to something originally conceived as a unified piece—makes Umbilical World somewhat suspect as an official List entry. There is enough bizareness here to merit the “” tag, however, and that will be more than enough endorsement for many folks.

COMMENTS: Umbilical World begins with “Salad Fingers,” the sweet green goblin with vegetable digits (and David Firth’s most popular creation) struck by lightning and dissolving into a puddle, out of which a glistening umbilical organ rises and glides into low Earth orbit, where it grows on to have relations with celestial objects.

It’s totally and delightfully surreal, of course, but this opening is also a way of implying connectivity between these shorts, although in reality there is no serious connective tissue between the segments. The absurdist miniatures here range from the silly tale of Salad Fingers adopting some sort of oil-soaked battered tin war surplus cylinder, to a skit with skinless gangsters using twisted Prohibition-era slang to order drinks, to straight-up satires of ads and public-service announcements, to a truly nightmarish bit involving a razor-taloned doctor puppet who wounds a horse and feasts on its blood. (Those who have only been exposed to Firth’s lighter, satirical side may be shocked by how terrifyingly dark he can go.) There is, at least, a unity of style and attitude, themes of insanity and death and despair and tubes suck through your skull, and a consistent vein of coal-black humor used to cope with these existential terrors. Extra-weird bits include a character vomiting scrabble tiles when questioned by a head sticking out of a tree stump—not to mention a baby-faced umbilicus entering a photograph of a vagina, emerging from a photograph of an anus, and vomiting eyeballs. There’s a new insane concept once every thirty seconds on average. And there are a surprising number of decapitations—usually not fatal—running throughout the work.

The transitions between the sequences are new material, with ideas like Salad Fingers taking place on a microscopic world on a piece of moldy bread. Characters also watch new cartoons on televisions embedded in the back of other characters heads. Stylistically, much of the animation remains true to Firth’s original flash versions, updated to HD; there are also segments dabbling in an ultra-grotesque form of cutout animation, with cross-eyed photorealistic heads bobbling unsteadily on animated bodies. One extended, trippy bit of digital manipulation, where 21st century  amoebas morph in pseudo-3D over the image before exploding into a fractal supernova and then turning into a stop-motion / homage with mannequin heads and a spinning plate of fruit and sundered body parts, ventures into brave new territory. The music—by Flying Lotus, the late Marcus Fjellström, and others—is eerie and well-matched to the mood. And while the individual pieces featured here may work better as shorts—there can be too much of a good thing, at least in one sitting—the experience is like leaving Firth’s YouTube channel on autoplay while waiting for the drugs to kick in, then checking in just when you’re peaking to find something on that plays like a collaboration between , , and a serial killer.

On a personal level, I was only familiar with the three Firth shorts previously published on these pages, plus a few more we screened and passed over for another day. I suspect someone like me may be in the best position to appreciate this collection. If you have too much familiarity with Firth’s work, you might be disappointed in how little new material is here, or be upset if your personal favorite was left out. If you have too little familiarity with Firth’s work, you might miss out on a bit of context or some of the umbilical connections, or simply be stunned by the mix of -style jokes with nightmares that would make bolt up in bed screaming. In any case, there is an obvious pitch to this work: Firth has worked hard publishing on YouTube to build a fan base, but paltry streaming advertising revenues don’t pay the bills for 99% of content providers. Like a Kickstarter reward, Umbilical World offers fans a chance to show him a little financial support, and to receive something new and exclusive in exchange. Umbilical World also immortalizes Firth’s work in a less ephemeral fashion. It’s available streaming (click here for options), or on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary and director’s commentary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

CAPSULE: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

DIRECTED BY: George Clooney

FEATURING: , , George Clooney,  Julia Roberts

PLOT: Chuck Barris is a producer of game shows by day and a free-lance CIA agent by night; the successes and failures of his parallel careers are remarkably in-step with one another.

Still from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With as screen-writer and television’s slimiest visionary as the subject matter, we might have been on course for a nomination. However, director George Clooney grounds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as conventional, hip Hollywood fare, embellished with some creative window dressing.

COMMENTS: An unlikeable protagonist, an unbelievable premise, and an odd fixation with montages add up to a dark and breezy viewing experience in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In his directorial debut, Clooney artfully weaves a tale of Cold War intrigue, mental collapse, and really, really bad television programming. Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints coat Confessions, but while self-examination-through-self-debasement oozes throughout it is simultaneously an odd character study as well as a Hollywood thriller. Chuck Barris strikes us as a skeezy guy doing the CIA’s skeezy work.

Lustful from the age of eleven, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) crashes through his youth horny and bitter. Wanting nothing more than to score with women, he is adrift in life, failing at his job as a minor, minor television executive. His fortunes change when he encounters Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a CIA recruiter who wants to take Chuck on as a freelance agent. After his run in with this shady emissary, Chuck’s life in the Biz immediately turns around: his “Dating Game” pilot is picked up, and his career rockets to a grimy pinnacle of debased pop success. Taking his longtime lover and friend Penny (Drew Barrymore) for granted, he dallies with classically educated, icily erotic fellow contractor Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts). Chuck’s TV ratings begin to slide at the same time his CIA career takes a dangerous, deadly turn.

Confessions‘ budget hovers just below the thirty-million-dollar mark, but considering the actors involved, Clooney makes that outlay look altogether frugal. To accommodate, he uses a lot of novel sets to  create an illusion of grandeur, some deal-making with his fellow heavy-hitters (Julia Roberts, for instance, agreed to work for a mere $250,000), and plenty of vintage television footage. Beyond that there are the montages. In fact, the whole thing feels like a montage of montages: a montage of Barris’ rise, a montage of Barris’ CIA training, a montage of Barris’ conquests, a montage of… you get the picture. With Confessions, the point where flashback montage and current montage meet is blurred by further montage.

Perhaps it’s appropriate. Chuck Barris is constantly running just to stay in place as Sam Rockwell’s sickly charm carries the character through all the depressing motions, showcasing someone that we cannot help but loathe while simultaneously rooting for. After the suicide of an assassin buddy, he refers to him as a “stagehand.” That description is strangely apt: Barris and his cohorts were the kinds of guys that constantly lurked around the periphery, making sure the show went on without others’ awareness. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as a eulogy for these men and women. All those spooks and hitmen were at heart ordinary people trapped in the giant reality show of the Cold War. And though heavily laden with regret and contemptuousness, this darkly comic biopic shows the tenderness and humanity of history’s dirtbags.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole is less than the sum of its parts: the dueling Kaufman and Barris takes on self-flagellation don’t exactly mesh. This film, a shape-shifting apologia-biopic as weird as Adaptation, is too cold for its own good.” –Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: SNOWFLAKE (2017)

Schneeflöckchen

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adolfo J. Kolmerer

FEATURING: Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Judith Hoersch, Alexander Schubert, David Gant

PLOT: In near-future Berlin, Javid and Tan find their fate preordained by a dentist’s ever-changing movie script as they pursue vengeance for their family’s deaths while in turn being pursued by hit men hired by the daughter of two bystanders they murdered while on their quest.

Still from Snowflake (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Imagine, if you will, the cross-section where Delirious and Fight Club meet Adaptation as an action-revenge-comedy littered with comic book energy and political commentary presented through the lens of a German director of commercials. Snowflake definitely has the chops to join its 358 other pals, even if we’re forced to pass it over for the official 366-count tally.

COMMENTS: I admittedly “like to like” movies; however, I generally don’t like gushing about much of anything. That said, I beg your forgiveness if I fall into hagiographical tones over the next few paragraphs, as I have not been this much blown away by a movie for quite some time. Adolfo Kolmerer’s feature debut, Snowflake, not only defies succinct description (other than strings of superlatives), it would perhaps defy logic if it weren’t so expertly crafted by the screenwriter and so deftly presented by the director.

Snowflake‘s story concerns a series of interlocking revenge-focused stories. Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkan Acar) are two long-time friends whose families died during a fire, possibly lit on purpose by xenophobic forces in a close-to-now, chaotic Berlin. Eliana (Xenia Assenza) seeks vengeance on these men for having murdered her parents in a kebab restaurant. Eliana’s bodyguard Carson (David Masterson) reluctantly agrees to introduce her to his estranged father (David Gant), who had been locked away for his homicidal-messianic tendencies, to help line up a string of unhinged murderers. Javid and Tan’s troubles are compounded when they discover that all their actions—indeed, everyone’s—seem to be determined by a dentist (Alexander Schubert) who dabbles in screenwriting. Hovering in the background is a vigilante superhero, a guardian angel nightclub singer, and a rather nasty bunch of neo-fascists aiming to stage a comeback.

Snowflake definitely has its own “feel”, while at the same time it tips its hat to its predecessors. , obviously; he seems to be credited now with influencing all manner of roaming-narrative crime movies. , too; the dentist-cum-puppet-master not only directs the action from his laptop, but in several sticky situations finds that his characters have tracked him down to make demands. (This leads to a number of the film’s funny moments, such as when Tan demands of him, “Think of us as the producers and you as the screenwriter. We give you an idea, and you have to make it work, no matter how stupid it is.”) Snowflake‘s political tones unfold slowly, beginning with some seemingly incongruous footage of an interview with an ex-police commissioner expounding on his nationalist ideas, and ending with the discovery of a hidden training facility for just-about-Nazi super-soldiers.

Ultimately, Snowflake stands as its own movie. Using a bold style while slavishly following scripted narrative logic, Kolmerer continued to amaze me at every twist and turn. I was so engrossed during the on-screen action in one scene that I had actually totally forgotten the “artificiality” of the whole narrative construct. By the film’s end I was left with a pleasantly extreme feeling of frisson, and perhaps even a shortness of breath. In order to keep myself brief, there are countless things I haven’t been able to touch upon. But I ask you to take my word for it that Snowflake is as beautiful and unique as its namesake, as well as a damn sight more hilarious than a crystal of frozen water.

Snowflake releases on DVD and Blu-ray on Dec. 4. We’ll update you when it’s out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dizzying, hilarious film that combines post-Tarantino action/crime drama and Charlie Kaufman’s metafictional surrealism with exhilarating results.”–Jason Coffman, Daily Grindhouse (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MOM AND DAD (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur

PLOT: Parents all across the world suddenly snap and start trying to kill their kids, leading to an all-out generational battle royale. Still from Mom and Dad (2107)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mom and Dad is actually a challenging movie to comprehend on first grasp. There is nothing in the execution of this film that says “weird,” but the premise alone is audaciously novel, and the tone is consistently off-rhythm. Maybe a list of “the 1000 strangest movies” would be a better fit for this movie.

COMMENTS: Mom and Dad‘s tagline reads, “They brought you into this world. They can take you out.” That line actually comes from an old Bill Cosby joke during his stand-up days, and is reused in the pilot episode for The Cosby Show. Cringing yet? Get used to it! Add to that the facts that the writer-director of this movie also did Crank, and that Nicholas Cage, in my book, is still serving time for what he did to The Wicker Man, and you can well appreciate how I entered this movie: with my expectations roughly south of cold coffee. The artsy opening credits sequence gave me a sprinkle of optimism; the contrast of soul-rock with James Bond-ish split frame montages set me up for a happy sick humor party. What would have done with this idea?

Back to reality. The movie focuses on suburban beehive hell and the nuclear family of Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) and their two kids Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur). Scene 1: bratty little brother interrupts big sister’s phone call to her boyfriend, so she chases him downstairs yelling she’s going to kill him and chucking a framed family portrait after him. Foreshadowing. While the family breakfasts, reports of parental filicide (that means killing your own kids) play on the news. The family argues over Carly’s date conflicting with grandparents expected for dinner, reading like a campy parody of American sitcoms. Their servant, Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee), seems used to it. Throughout their day, the family, even the adults talking to each other, bicker in casual passive-aggressive ways, not a joyful scene to be had. In school, Carly’s teacher is a mean jerk.

The whole world of Mom and Dad is a bleak landscape of sneering nastiness regardless of who’s talking to whom, which builds up to all the parents showing up early to pick up their kids from school—and it’s not to take them out for ice cream! It turns into a spontaneous riot, with the too-few cops failing to keep order as parents leap fences and gates and start stone cold assassinating their kids using any means at hand. Kids run, parents chase, bedlam, uh, badlams. Talking heads on the news spread the same story, and of course no one knows why this is happening. A lengthy delivery room sequence with Kendall’s sister picking today of all days to give birth terminates in a post-natal abortion as mom strangles the newborn. Elsewhere in the hospital, new parents press their faces against the glass of the maternity ward, locked out.

All this blurs by, less like a movie and more like an anthology of connected scenes. It’s exactly like a million zombie apocalypse survival scenarios, only the zombies are all repoductively fertile adults. Notably, no parent is homicidal towards anyone else but their own offspring, unless somebody gets between them. The kids of our central nuclear family return home to find their housekeeper Sun-Yi mopping up the blood from her own filicide. The kids have to fend for themselves, and marshal defenses such as taking their parents’ gun; which gives us a satirical recitation of home firearm statistics after a parent gets shot.

Speaking as one who favors the darkest side of humor… I’m a little let down, because there’s not much dark humor here, except in the general concept. Cage does his Cagiest, and his trademark freakouts carry every scene he’s in—singing the “Hokey Pokey” while demolishing his pool table with a sledgehammer after a minor marital dispute, that sort of thing—but he’s not even in the bulk of the movie. The thing about Nicholas Cage is, his act is starting to get old. After your 100th Daffy Duck cartoon, seeing him act like a loon isn’t a surprise anymore. Outside the Cage, the rest of the movie seems like a particularly bleak number. I would hope repeat viewings could help the flavor to come through, like a Captain Beefheart album, but that’s doubtful, giving the limp ending.

Mom and Dad does have many strong points in its favor. It is intelligently handled, has an original and daring premise, and explores that concept in depth. There’s just enough Nicholas Cage to flavor it without overpowering it. The rest of the cast is competent; Selma Blair gets several good scenes. But… it seems to not know what it wants to be. It nibbles on some themes, like punk nihilism, anti-consumerism, and social parody of the generation gap, without committing to any of them. It could have been a lot worse, so perhaps its biggest achievement is making this edgy premise work. It aspires to mild interest, achieves that capably, then quits while it’s ahead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The phrase ‘I swear I could kill that kid’ is no longer an exaggerated statement of infuriation, as some mysterious phenomenon creates a gloriously weird amalgam of ParentsThe Purge, and Dawn of the Dead in Brian Taylor’s jet-black horror-comedy.”–Blake Crane, Film Pulse (contemporaneous)