Tag Archives: Comedy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975)

Le jeu avec le feu

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DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet

FEATURING: Anicée Alvina, ,

PLOT: Carolina fails to be kidnapped by a sex-trafficking syndicate, but that does not stop her father from playing along with the crooks as an excuse to send his daughter to a curious health clinic.

Still from Playing with Fire (1975)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This bafflement features a hearty portion of stylistic and narrative eccentricities, but it might be imperfectly described as Jean-Luc Godard helming a Hostel movie while promised of a cash bonus for every tableau featuring a naked chick.

COMMENTS: Alain Robbe-Grillet indulges in a bold combination of erotica, thriller, and shaggy-dog story in Playing With Fire. The first half-hour alone is a cavalcade of coyly directed nonsense: a reminiscence about an erotic picture book; an exploding doll leaving a cats-paw burn mark; a fabricated cry for help on the back of an Arc de Triomphe postcard; a pair of goons with the graceful articulation of marionettes. And so on. There’s more than a touch of Godard in Playing With Fire, and a hearty portion of lian commentary. Considering the source, this is unsurprising. Robbe-Grillet’s greatest contribution to cinema was providing the screenplay for ‘ cryptic and beautiful chef d’œuvre, Last Year at Marienbad, but he had a long directorial career afterwards where he was left to his own mischievous devices.

The mischief begins with a voiceover by Georges Balthazar de Saxe (a stately Jean-Louis Trintignant, positively oozing “monied patriarch”) as the camera points at the household servants nominally acting out domestic tasks. The maid dusts a picture frame as an excuse to linger by the master’s door. The all-too-upright butler randomly passes a polishing cloth over nearby furniture, but is primarily focused on taking snap-shots. He sets the mantel timepiece to 4 o’clock. Why? Who can say. And more to the point, why is it that Carolina de Saxe (Anicée Alvina) failed to be kidnapped despite the considerable coordination efforts of a shadowy group of sex slavers?

I am convinced that Robbe-Grillet is playing with us—he practically admits as much in the title. There is a seeming precision to his efforts, but a tell-tale bit in the first act is heavy enough of a wink to discourage any serious lock-picking. After having been drugged in his garden by agents of the sinister syndicate, Georges de Saxe converses with his butler about the matter. There is an obvious shot of butler cocking his head toward the house, as if there were a sound. Moments later, the gesture is repeated, this time in response to an actual audio cue. This whole film is meta-charade.

The ensuing romp brings Carolina to a mental-clinic-cum-sex-dungeon, where the voyeurism motif established by the camera-clicky butler is cemented. The waif wanders a hallway arrayed with innumerable doorways with a photograph of each occupant. Inside, pukingly rich bourgeoisie enact pseudo-sadistic tableau featuring the young woman advertised on the exterior. Similarly, Playing With Fire is a showcase of our storyteller’s cinematic prowess, and wit. The nonsensical (“All men’s moustaches are fake”) mingles giddily with the sinister (threats of rape and bodily harm are scattered throughout the film like so much confetti). If you ignore the comedy, you’re left with an obtuse art-house Hostel morass. But the comedy and absurdism are real (so to speak), and it’s best to watch Playing With Fire as if not much on-screen actually happens—which is probably the point Alain Robbe-Grillet is trying to make.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird madcap tale that benefits from gorgeous scenery and cinematography, experimental arthouse editing, and arousing sexual vignettes.” – Ken Kastenhuber, McBastard’s Mausoleum (Blu-ray box set)

CAPSULE: BREATHING HAPPY (2022)

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Breathing Happy is currently available for VOD rental or purchase (or free with a Fandor subscription).

DIRECTED BY: Shane Brady

FEATURING: Shane Brady, June Carryl, Augie Duke, Brittney Escalante, Katelyn Nacon, John D’Aquino, Hugh Scott, Owen Atlas, voices of , Sarah Bolger,

PLOT: A recovering addict undergoes a metaphorical hallucination on Christmas Eve, which happens to be the anniversary of his first year sober.

Still from Breathing Happy (2022)

COMMENTS: It can’t be stressed enough that Breathing Happy is made with a particular audience in mind: people within the recovery movement, and specifically, people within the recovery movement who also enjoy oddball movies. Within that extremely niche demographic, Breathing Happy‘s audience clearly loves it. Like faith-based movies, recovery movies are fraught with the danger of relapsing into the preachy and pedantic. Shane Brady here uses disorientation, impudent comedy, and a high (if seldom difficult to decode) level of metaphor to overcome those pitfalls. Mostly, it works: insider jargon and platitudes rarely intrude, are often subverted when they do, and the movie never feels like a lecture. And it is provocative—almost perverse—to make a recovery movie that plays like a psychedelic trip movie.

And Breathing Happy, a movie which features not one but two talking doors, is trippy through and through. It begins with a man sitting alone doing magic tricks with multicolored playing cards, intercut with a series of shots of blossoming clouds of colored pigments, emerging into a rapidly changing montage of decades-spanning home video footage, before slowing down a bit to introduce Dylan, its one-year-sober protagonist, alone on Christmas Eve. Things quickly take another turn for the surreal when he almost immediately awakens from a short winter’s nap to find his dog missing, alarms going off all over the house, weird lighting, and his old dealer, who talks like French Stewart, eating the Christmas pudding in his living room. From there, we embark on a non-linear journey of memory and discovery, achieved mostly through schizophrenic dream-logic editing that cycles through ghostly visitations, flashbacks, a comic 911 call, fractured bits of therapy and meditation sessions, and hallucinatory conversations with a couple of talking doors that represent the poles of sobriety and relapse. Breathing Happy rarely pauses to catch its breath, instead expressing the racing thoughts and regrets of its protagonist, who at one point tearfully confesses that his mind is like “a popcorn machine, fireworks, a bunch of hyenas fighting for attention…” The film dedicates itself to realizing that confusion, although it also sorts it out at the end and provides the expected happy grace notes.

Recovering addict Dylan’s backstory is revealed slowly and in a fragmentary manner. He’s adopted into a multiracial family, suffers a gruesome hockey accident that presumably puts him on the Oxycontin highway to hell, alienates everyone in his family, and loses everyone in his family—and then his dog gets cancer. Let’s face it, the guy’s going through a lot. The film is sympathetic to Dylan—maybe to a fault. Everything is seen from the addict’s perspective, how his addiction affects him rather than those around him. Sure, it’s hinted that his family has legitimate reasons for shunning him, but we’re not directly made privy to them: it seems like he ruins multiple Christmases through nothing more than impoliteness and slurred speech. We never see a big rock bottom moment, no stealing of his mom’s jewelry, no taking a swing at sis, not even nodding off face-first into the mashed potatoes at dinner. His sisters’ decision to cut Dylan out of the family therefore comes across as needlessly cruel. The movie is overprotective in its sympathy for the addict; the same events seen through an Al-Anon lens would have a quite different tenor. We don’t even know what Dylan’s drug of choice is (we default to polydrug addict popping whatever comes along, but I would have found it more interesting to take a deeper dive into the particular failings of a junkie, a tweaker, or a dedicated drunk). Dylan is at the same time incredibly specific in his personal history, but extremely generic as an addict: likely a deliberate choice to make his story as universal as possible. Still, I personally would have preferred Breathing Happy to include more direct and honest dysfunction, to show us more of Dylan’s drug-induced transgressions, to treat him with rougher gloves. The film’s pro-addict bias is admirable, but overplayed.

Although I am not part of Breathing Heavy‘s primary target audience, I was never bored with the movie, which always has a new angle at the ready. If you like weird movies, I suspect you will find it an easy watch. If you like recovery movies, I suspect you will find much to identify with. And if you’re a recovering addict who also likes weird movies—what are you waiting for? This was made specifically for you.

Breathing Happy is obviously a labor of love for star Shane Brady, who has previously been glimpsed as an actor in weirdish indies like The Endless, Tone-Deaf, Synchronic and King Knight. Brady wrote, directed, and edited (good job there) the film, as well as holding down the role of Dylan. and ‘s Rustic Films produced, and the acting/directing duo cameo as disembodied voices.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird Christmas redemption story that defies genre… a mind-bending story about recovery, redemption, and grief with a pinch of magic for good measure.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SYLVIO (2017)

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Sylvio is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Sylvio Bernardi, Kentucker Audley

PLOT: A gorilla who works for a debt collection agency accidentally stumbles on to a small-town television broadcast, but his shot at fame comes with conditions.

COMMENTS: “Feel good” movies are almost always a dispiriting experience for the weird viewer. Saccharine story lines, all-too-earnest performances, and finales which crash over the viewer on a tide of sweepy-weepy strings. Similarly, hipster comedies with the “quirk” set to eleven exasperate. By subverting these expectations, Sylvio, by and large, succeeds. While the film’s story is a bit by the books (and, admittedly, a touch saccharine), it has an easy charm that carries the story through all the notes required for a “feel good” hipster movie without eliciting eye-rolls from even your jaundiced reviewer, who has endured a panoply low-to-no-budget oddball meanderings.

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney have made a quiet film about a quiet gorilla—one who reluctantly works at a debt collection agency. Sylvio Bernardi (who plays himself) is a mellow man-beast. He likes soft synth music, has a pet goldfish, and spends his free hours making episodes of “Quiet Times with Herbert Herpels,” a silent puppet vignette series devised, it seems, for an audience of one. Utterly unruthless, he is an awkward fit at his job. But what turns out to be his final collection assignment gives him a chance to live his small dream of telling his stories. Unfortunately, he gains his fame by breaking things on set (accidentally, mind you), and has to work out just what kind of local fame he wants to attain.

Sylvio is a buddy comedy, chronicling the relationship between Sylvio and the local television host, Al Reynolds—a similarly soft-spoken fellow who, as his lack of sponsorship indicates, probably wasn’t made for this time and place. The hook, of course, is that Sylvio is a gorilla: a gorilla whose demeanor flies in the face of his species’ fearsome reputation. Whoever Bernardi is, he plays it straight—without which the whole project would collapse. Everyone else plays it straight, as well. The whole exercise is an examination of TV excitement, à la Bart Simpson’s “I Didn’t Do It” brush with fame on The Simpsons.

It’s a simple story, with enough laughs along the way to justify itself. What tips my view firmly on the favorable side is the quality of the craftsmanship. Sylvio’s own excess efforts are put into the “Quiet Times” experience (these interludes heighten the weird quotient, particularly the dream sequence during which Sylvio meets a real-life Herbert Herpels as a mute spirit guide). Audley and Birney not only make this quiet drollery with commendable competence, but also display a keen eye for framing. In one dramatic scene, the focal points of Herbert resting on the hood of a car, the form of Sylvio digging a grave for his puppet, and a shining moon in the upper right corner of the frame make for an observational experience worthy of any top tier production: Sylvio is on the cusp abandoning his dream, but stops himself. I suspect that Sylvio‘s filmmakers faced countless moments of doubt themselves. But thankfully they stopped themselves from burying this curiosity, and so their own quiet story can be seen by anyone seeking an eccentric, easy-going, and, yes, feel good experience.

Sylvio failed to find a home on video after its release, but the indie success of Strawberry Mansion reignited interest in Birney and Audley’s first feature. It’s now on VOD and will be released on Blu-ray January 31 by Music Box Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Curios don’t get much more curious than ‘Sylvio,’ which has the distinction of being both the weirdest, and most affecting, feature ever made starring a man in a monkey suit — or, to be more precise, a man in a monkey suit wearing a monkey suit… It won’t attract more than a niche audience, but a cult following for this bizarro effort seems quite possible.”–Nick Schager, Variety (contemporaneous)