Tag Archives: Black Comedy

BORDERLINE WEIRD: FROWNLAND (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ronald Bronstein

FEATURING: Dore Mann, David Sandholm, Paul Grimstad

PLOT: A pathetic loser named Keith lives a putrid existence in his sigh-inducing apartment. He is horribly flawed in every way: vacuous, temperamental, and repulsively stupid. He lives with a roommate he wants to rid himself of, he tries to romance women to no avail, and his attempts to better himself in any way only exacerbate his terminal lameness.

Still from Frownland (2007)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  The titanic sadness at the center of Frownland is certainly profound enough to be considered weird.  It calls to a part of us that we all carry within: that anti-social, misfit side who feels that, truly, in our heart of hearts, we are ugly and alone.  Only, in Keith, we find that part magnified, personified to a hideous degree.  There is something quietly disturbing about a man struggling with so many problems adapting to society, trying to overcome the shame he feels in himself and his deplorable condition.  But to say that it is weird based on that facet alone is to ignore the unflinching blandness surrounding Keith and the lack of any character whatsoever in the world Frownland creates.

COMMENTS: Cited by many media outlets as a comedy, Frownland is a crushing personal statement of loneliness and isolation in a city of millions.  If this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of the absurdity to which modern life is betrothed.

From the very first moment, Ronald Bronstein fashions an air of shame and anxiety around the central character, Keith, that is hard to shake.  Keith is a dreg of humanity, a product of a lack of any esteem or dignity, and while it doesn’t excuse his behavior at times, it is worth noting that he isn’t exactly like the hideous beast he watches on a televised horror movie in an early scene.  But everything about him is unappealing, from his appearance to his treatment of his semi-friends to the way he lies just to try to relate to other human beings.  He is not even an anti-hero: he’s an anti-anything, a character that admittedly took a lot of guts to commit to film, and one that will live in infamy in the indie circuit for years to come.

Bronstein has a very dark, organic vision that threatens to swallow the viewer in a miasma of dilapidated retro culture.  It has the heart of an angst-ridden 70s independent feature, the set pieces of an 80s European film, the youth-centric mindset of a low-budget 90s film, but for all we know it is set in 2007.  Nothing is given as far as details, and we can only guess while the unsettling score drifts in and out of the background.  It is an effort that many will compare to John Cassavetes, with its heavy mood and deeply troubled characters, but in the rhythms and pacing of the hypnotic dialog Bronstein traces out, I think there is a real visionary here who stands out from his peers.

Frownland is a work of art that tests us on a very cerebral level, and I for one am glad to have seen it.  I think it’s fair to keep this on the borderline for now, but with enough support behind it, it may very well earn its own spot on the List.  For a comedy in which I never laughed once, this might just be the best comedy I’ve seen all year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…either a primal scream issued from a potentially dangerous mind, a wildly original work of outsider art, a doctoral thesis on how not to make friends and influence people, or all (or none) of the above. Only this much is certain: It’s been a while since something this gonzo turned up at a theater near you.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

This movie was suggested for review by reader “Rob”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

SATURDAY SHORT: TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW GREAT JOB!: H’AMB

For some Adult Swim viewers, it was hard enough to believe that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s grotesquely odd television series received a second season. To their dismay, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! premiered season five (season “cinco”) in February of this year. Although the series focuses on comedy, Wareheim claims that the show is greatly influenced by the awkwardness of David Lynch‘s work.

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Fuest

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT:  Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak.  Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.”  We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.

COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy.  Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium.  In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds.  Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs.  At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during  random passages as he plays.  After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos.  The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad.  On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970)

DIRECTED BYRobert Altman

FEATURING: Bud Cort, , Michael Murhpy, Shelley Duvall, , , Margaret Hamilton, Jennifer Salt, William Baldwin

PLOT: An oddball genius constructs a one man flying device in the basement of the Houston Astrodome, assisted by a sexy but murderous guardian angel.

Still from Brewster McCloud (1970)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Robert Altman’s showman’s understanding and appreciation of the circus influenced the presentation of this surreal satire with its unconventional plot, eccentric characters, and eye-catching production design.  Watching this colorful odyssey is like exploring a side road on the cinematic highway to Oz.

COMMENTS:  Five out of five stars all the way for this gorgeous, pensive work of art. In this strange black comedy, Brewster McCloud (Cort -“Harold” from Harold and Maude) is a likable misfit who lives in the fallout shelter of the old Houston Astrodome. He endeavors to build a mechanical flying suit which will enable his escape from an incomprehensible world to some unknown imaginative utopia. An eccentric angel adeptly played by the quirky Sally Kellerman strangles anyone who opposes Brewster.

Brewster McCloud has a humorously heavy ornithological thesis with a narrative lecture provided by an off kilter science professor. The instructor’s recitation of facts about the social and mating habits of birds provides a funny comparative commentary on human nature. Avian themes glue the plot points together and furnish continuity between a sequence of strange events as Brewster struggles to achieve his goal.

There are three subplots: a coming of age story centered around McCloud, a social commentary stemming from the exposition of similarities and differences between humans and birds, and a murder investigation. While the police attempt to determine why the strangulation victims are found plastered with bird droppings, Brewster tries to beat the clock and perfect his flying machine before the authorities close in. He must stay Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970)

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , , Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)