Tag Archives: Black Comedy

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)

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)