Tag Archives: Comedy

CAPSULE: MANDIBLES (2020)

Mandibules

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Marsais, Adèle Exarchopoulos

PLOT: Two dimwitted thugs think they’ve struck it rich when they find a giant fly in the trunk of their stolen car.

Still from Mandibles [Mandibules] (2020)

COMMENTS: The shaggy-fly comedy Mandibles showcases the more accessible side of Quentin Dupieux; it’s getting the widest American release of any of his film’s since Rubber (2010), and his best notices from mainstream viewers and reviewers. While 2018’s Keep an Eye Out was a nonstop assault of ian jokes and experiments, Mandibles (like 2019’s Deerskin) restricts itself to only a couple of deadpan absurdist premises (the giant fly being, naturally, the main one). It’s an olive branch for those who believe that, when it comes to weird, less is more.

Mandibles starts when Manu, homeless and sleeping on the beach and looking like a French version of the Dude, gets a hush-hush commission to deliver a mysterious suitcase, no questions asked, for 500 Euros. (As this is a Dupieux film, you can be sure the valise will not contain a kilo of heroin, stolen diamonds, or plans for an Iranian nuclear reactor.) Manu invites buddy Jean-Gab along on the low-key caper, but complications immediately arise when they find that the trunk of their stolen car houses an enormous fly. Jean-Gab, the marginally brighter of the two, hatches the idea to train the flying pest as an assistant for their criminal careers. The suitcase is temporarily forgotten as the two buffoonish thugs seek to enact their plan, overcoming small-scale obstacles (accidentally locked trunks, fires, car problems) as they try to avoid tripping over their own feet.  Manu’s efforts go to scrounging up food and lodging, while Jean-Gab spends his time training the fly he’s named Dominique. Through a crazy coincidence, their picaresque adventures eventually land them at a country villa where they meet a suspicious Adèle Exarchopoulos, who threatens to uncover their subterfuge—despite suffering from a novel neurological problem (the movie’s second big surreal joke).

It’s the friendship between Manu and Jean-Gab, rather than the fly’s antics, that carries the movie. These two dopes have a bit of a Bill and Ted dynamic (with their “toro” handshake subbing for the California dudes’ air guitar salutation). Their criminality is opportunistic rather than mean-spirited; in real-life, their poorly conceived scams would quickly land them in prison, but in the movie’s world they’re able to abduct people and steal property without serious repercussions. They never get anywhere; perpetual victims of their own stupidity, they have a tendency accidentally destroy all their ill-gotten gains. Their simplicity and unswerving loyalty to each other leads the audience to root for them despite their boorish behavior, however, and you even see how their insect companion could get attached to them. Meanwhile, their escapades provide just enough unpredictability and amusement to carry the slight narrative through its brisk 75-minute runtime.

Is Grégoire Ludig becoming Dupieux’s leading man of choice? He’s unrecognizable here from his turn in Keep an Eye Out, and he even shows up here briefly in a second role—again unrecognizable. He’s got a chameleonic presence and good comic timing, two things a Dupieux film can always use.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not Dupieux’s best work, but there are enough laughs and head-shaking moments to make ‘Mandibles’ an entertaining jaunt into weirdosville.”–Carla Hay, Culture Mix (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore Schaefer

FEATURING: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman

PLOT: A suburban mother and her son’s pregnant girlfriend take a surreal road trip to try to fix a financial mistake.

Still from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

COMMENTS: Diana is the matriarch of an average suburban family who’s made an embarassing mistake. Her husband Daryl hates his job and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Daughter Danielle is assisting in the school play. Son Andrew has a pregnant (though not with a butterfly) girlfriend, Marlene. Marlene’s mother is delusional, believing herself a famous but forgotten actress about to be rediscovered.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly starts out as a domestic drama, but one with a very dry sense of absurdity. Marlene reads off eye-catching headlines from a tabloid magazine: “Child Sings in the Womb,” “Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral,” that sort of thing.  Diana’s co-workers have confusingly similar names and appearances. Characters drift into improbably poetic monologues. And Marlene’s mom is totally bonkers, a good excuse for the movie to cut loose from some of its subtlety. But although the dialogue is sometimes ridiculous, the dynamics between the characters are believable: Diana and Daryl share a low-grade, polite hostility. Dad wants to impose his dreams on the whole family. The children either try to defuse family tensions or are absorbed in their own worlds. Marlene, the reluctant interloper, wants to ingratiate herself into her boyfriend’s family.

In the beginning, at least, we learn more about Diana from her relations with others than from herself, which may be the key to her character. The first act sets up the characters. When Diana and Marlene embark on a journey, Diana slowly comes more into focus. When the pair arrive at the home of a couple of old ladies who are both spooky and wise, the movie launches into full surrealist mode, as Diana’s dreams become her reality.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a short movie, only 75 minutes long. But like a particularly dense poem, its brevity belies an entire world of thematic and intertextual references. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Mina Loy (the relevant stanza of which is read over the credits) and there are references to Homer. The characters monologues are draped in metaphor. A number of motifs recur: naming people, twins, trains and journeys, damaged artworks. The dreamlike ending is not explicitly explained, but these themes give you a lot to think about. Enigma is the dominant tone. It’s an intelligent, and even poetic debut film from Theodore Schaefer, but it’s not always an engaging one. But its short runtime may make it worth a gamble if you find the idea of a Sundance-style dramedy with a surreal twist at the end appealing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dream-like experience with relatable themes, but the surrealist drama plays more like a philosophy lecture than a film. Feeling like a co-production between Kelly Reichardt and David Lynch, Schaefer’s directorial debut shows promise as a filmmaker, but the film never concretely comes together.”–Jon Medelsohn, CBR.com (festival screening)

Short promotional clip from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES (2021)

Droste no hate de bokura

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Junta Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Aki Asakura, Kazunori Tosa

PLOT: Kato receives a warning from his future self over the closed circuit TV link between his café and his apartment and things cascade—from innocent hijinks to run-ins with dangerous thugs—much more quickly than he would prefer.

COMMENTSBeyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a meditation on pre-determinism and with it, the concept of history as an immutable foundation for future events and actions. It’s a tightly scripted exercise in reiterative story-telling, exploring (among other things) the Droste Effect as it pertains to temporal progression and regression. With this film’s ironclad approach to time travel, Junta Yamaguchi creates a cinematic sleight-of-hand on par with Primer. Except this time, the story is told for laughs: in addition to everything else, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a rollicking, fun-time comedy.

The shenanigans begin simply enough, with Kato closing up his café and shuffling upstairs to his apartment. Entering his room, he picks up his guitar and begins searching for something. Suddenly he sees himself appear on the computer monitor connected to the CCTV feed from his café below. His future self—two minutes ahead, it is explained—tells him that his guitar pick is underneath the carpet. He finds the missing plectrum and heads back downstairs to fulfill his present-future self’s duty to his past self, and so the cycle begins.

Beyond is a sci-fi temporal sitcom, with a romantic interest (the barber’s daughter we first see, briefly, in the opening shot; which I will remark on in a future paragraph). It’s peopled by a bunch of affable twenty-somethings who are first confounded by the anomaly, then scheme about its possibilities (horse-racing outcomes, anyone?), and then are forced to plot out Kato’s survival when a pair of gangsters crash the time party. The entire thing is shot in four rooms and a stairwell, using an iPhone, so everything hinges on the script. The two-minute gap is adhered to with commendable strictness, and the whole thing is littered with spoof-level platitudes found in countless time-travel movies gone by. (“The future keeps going!”, one exclaims; then, lamenting their earlier escapades, “There’s gotta be a better use.”)

The “opening shot” I mentioned a few minutes ago was a bit of a misnomer, because not being content with just the time-travel constraint, Beyond also gives the impression of being shot in one take. Characters cart the linked monitors up and down stairways, then linger outside the view of the “time tunnel” when they square the screens to face one another, but there is never an obvious cut to the action.

The whole shebang is one uninterrupted hour, which is impressive on account of both the running camera trick and the filmmaker’s restraint; it never overstays its welcome. Fantasia’s earlier stylistic reboot One Cut of the Dead gave the zombie genre a much-needed shot in the arm; Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has renewed my faith in erstwhile time-worn time-traveling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a remarkable feat that in a film with this many brain-bending moments, the only part that really strains credulity is the length of the power cords of the two screens that drive the plot.” -Thomas O’Connor, Tilt (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival screening)