Tag Archives: Comedy

CAPSULE: THE WAVE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Gille Klabin

FEATURING: , , Donald Faison, Tommy Flanagan, Ronnie Gene Blevins

PLOT: A corporate lawyer decides to cut loose one night, but regrets it when a strange drug dealer convinces him to try an exotic hallucinogen whose effects last several days and make him randomly skip forward in time.

Still from The Wave (2019)

COMMENTS: I was confused as to what genre to place The Wave. It’s not reality-based enough to be science fiction, and nor is it divorced enough from reality to be fantasy. It’s not magical realism, either. The issues it explores are more philosophical than dramatic.  Psychological thriller kind of works, but the film is not nearly as dark as that term usually implies. The pacing (and the occasional light mugging from the leads) suggests that the movie wants to be taken as a comedy. Indeed, the setup, with straight-laced corporate lawyer Frank sneaking out for a night on the town with his more adventurous (and nigh-irresponisible) buddy suggest suits-cut-loose shenanigans a la Something Wild are coming. But the movie also takes itself kind of seriously, and lacks moments that play for big laughs.

The mongrel term “dramedy” is a possibility, but in the end I think The Wave really belongs to that rare and disreputable subgenre, the “trip movie.” It’s not an exploitation piece—although there are drug porn moments, like when we see a heaping mound of hundreds of thousands of dollars of uppers, downers, pills and powders spread across a grinning dealer’s table. The Wave‘s money shots are its wavery lysergic visions—especially when one of the mystery drug’s waves kicks in at a corporate board meeting, turning the executives into a bunch of Mammon-channeling demons. (The visuals here are simple but effective—it looks like they digitally painted over every frame of film, an effect that looks like rotoscoping done in MS Paint). At its core, the script posits that psychedelic drugs have legitimate spiritual healing qualities—that all that most self-centered lawyer needs is a high enough dose to turn himself on, grok karma, and become a self-sacrificing hippie.

The script may be naive at heart, but it hides it well. After Frank takes the mystery drug, the plot barrels along, lurching forward in time. Frank might suddenly find himself in a deserted house, or in the middle of a car chase, without explanation. Blackouts may be a side effect of the drug, but there’s something mystical about the process, too. By the end, the plot points snap into place nicely. The leads are all pro. Donald Faison provides good buddy support, playing the bad angel or good angel as needed; Sheila Vand, the mystic pixie dream girl, is luminous in her dream sequences; and Ronnie Gene Blevins overacts quite appropriately as the hellbent drug dealer antagonist. Justin Long makes a great Frank. He has a pleasant John Krasinski-meets-Fred Armisen quality here; you can’t stay mad at him, even when blind ambition is leading him to screw the beneficiaries of a dead firefighter out of their rightful proceeds. The screenplay hates the game, not the player, and redemption is just a trip away. Everything doesn’t quite work as it should: some characters, like the shrewish wife and the ruthless CEO, are cardboard caricatures; the score adds little; and, since the mystery drug comes at you in waves, the movie probably should have been titled in the plural. But if a mysterious Scotsman in a fur coat offers you The Wave, consider taking it. Rough patches aside, the crisp acting, inventive visuals, and speedy pace make it a trip you probably won’t regret taking.

The Wave shows up in selected cinemas, and more widely on video-on-demand, this Friday, January 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a fairly clever, trippy saga with its heart in the right place.”–Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm (festival screening)

 

CAPSULE: VHYES (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jack Henry Robbins

FEATURING: Mason McNulty, Christian Drerup, Jake Head, Rahm Braslaw

PLOT: We see the results when 12-year-old Ralph tapes late night 1987 cable television shows, and his own adolescent antics, over his parent’s old wedding tape.

Still from VHYes (2019)

COMMENTS: VHYes had me at the moment when, after brushing in some happy snowcaps for the mountains she’s been crafting, the somnolently friendly Bob Ross-style PBS painting instructor announces “now, let’s get back to the spaceship.” She’s just one of the demented characters you meet as young Ralph experiments in preserving his short-attention span channel surfing for posterity: a kindly cowboy full of inappropriate advice; a couple of shopping channel salesfolk who banter passive-aggressively; an “Antiques Roadshow”-inspired host who appraises some unusual artifacts; the shy hostess of a punk rock public access show (and her supportive parents); and a prescient cultural philosopher who describes the phenomenon of “tape narcissism” and warns that “one day the world will exist only to be filmed.” Naturally, there are also a slew of vintage commercial and infomercial parodies. This smorgasbord of ersatz crapola plays like a found footage 1980s version of The Groove Tube, except that it periodically returns to check in the adventures on Ralph, his best friend Josh, and his mom and dad. Some bits are silly and overdone (there’s a bit more splattered blood than you’d normally see in an alarm company commercial ); others are subtle and absurd. The big finale is reminiscent of the kind of short that might play on “” post-midnight: Ralph finds himself surreally transported into a jumbled reality where the layers of the tape all bleed together.

VHYes is a breezy compendium of skewed nostalgia, sometimes hilarious, sometimes weird, and, unexpectedly, sometimes touching. The most substantial complaint to raise against it, in fact, is that it’s too short. There must have been plenty of unused tape, and I would have loved to see even more backstory on young Ralph. His scenes are more than just the gimmick that explains the existence of the artifact we’re watching; his story of coping with childhood fears and disappointments offer a meaningful counterbalance to the goofy comedy sketches, like the commercial for an ointment that grants cubicle workers “freakish flexibility.” On the other hand, maybe it’s best to consider VHYes‘ zippy 70-minute runtime an asset rather than a liability. It’s a “little” film, but in the best sense: short, punchy, homemade, thoughtful in its unassuming way, and—like the ongoing saga of Hot Winter, an ecologically-aware 80s porno with the lesbian orgies edited out—innocent at its heart.

VHYes was shot entirely on vintage VHS and Betacam cameras. The bits with the spooky painter (starring Kerry Kenney, of “Reno 911” fame) are spliced in from Robbins’ 2017 Sundance short “Painting with Joan”; the edited porno scenes from “Hot Winter” were also a standalone short. Director Jack Henry Robbins is the son of and , who executive produced and have eye-blink cameos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange yet sweet film that is one-part coming-of-age dramedy, one-part found-footage comedy, and one part channel surfing.”–Kristy Puchko, Pajiba (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEX MADNESS REVEALED (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:  Tim Kirk

FEATURINGPatton Oswalt, Rob Zabrecky

PLOT: The viewer watches the old exploitation roadshow feature Sex Madness (1938), synced to a podcast where the “Film Dick” interviews the director’s grandson and uncovers shocking secrets about the production.

Still from Sex Madness Revealed (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a clever idea with a mildly weird twist, but the execution doesn’t live up to the premise’s promise.

COMMENTS: In the early 90s, a troupe of comedians from the Midwest revolutionized bad-movie watching with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which you might recognize as that show where silhouettes at the bottom of the screen toss out wisecracks while a giant monster or juvenile delinquent movie unspools in real time. Like Tim Kirk’s previous experiment, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Sex Madness Revealed takes that conceit to the next level: instead of making a series of one-off jokes at the expense of the film, it invents an entire new fictional narrative and overlays it onto the original. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Revealed proposes that the base movie, the 1930s VD scare film Sex Madness, is actually a coded message from a secret society. It’s a parody of the way certain paranoid fans 1 believe movies work: directors slide secret messages into their work to signal Illuminati connections, or to slyly confess that they faked the moon landing, or whatever. This cinematic conspiracy theme explains why Room 237s signed on as producer.

Sex Madness itself is an oddity, a nearly plotless pastiche of padding, stock footage, subdued salaciousness (an as-titillating-as-possible-at-the-time lesbian seduction), and hypocritical moral shock (grotesque shots of syphilis chancres, both faked and real). The lack of a real plot in Sex Madness leaves the commentators room to speculate and to invent a story that’s more interesting than the one playing out onscreen. The task the writers give themselves is a tough one, and although it is impressive that they are able to craft a meta-narrative that holds water, the script often strains mightily. One character’s passing resemblance to launches a major portion of the plot. Sometimes, the writers inspirations are just silly and don’t come across: for example, a mysterious sound artifact leads to speculation that the actors’ performances are being controlled by the offscreen director via electrical shocks. Some minor observations approach brilliance, however: once the grandson explains that grandfather selected the wood grain in one of the film’s drab office sets for its subliminal vaginal connotations, you’ll never be able to see the room any other way.

The plot is ultimately merely serviceable, and so are the performances. Oswalt and Zabrecky recorded their lines in one day, and it sounds like it. That’s not to say they are bad: they both deliver professional readings. But they don’t have time to dive deeply into their characters to create something more than a competent caricature. As the gung ho but arrogant podcast host, Oswalt is OK, but his character isn’t completely convincing; his exhaustive command of minutiae from the dregs of exploitation cinema (e.g., instant recall of a minor exploitation actresses’ high school mascot) is a little much, even for a bad film nerd. As the eccentric grandson delivering shocking revelations, Zabrecky gives a laid-back but melodramatically sinister performance that also fails to transcend the workmanlike. If you’re drawn to this type of cinema and this type of narrative experiment, the end result is something you might enjoy listening to once; but it’s not a movie with heavy replay value. Which is a shame, since Sex Madness Revealed is currently only available on physical media, whereas it would be a fine choice for a on-demand rental one evening. (If you’re a legitimate fan of Sex Madness itself, by all means buy this disc—and may God have mercy on your soul.)

As usual, Kino Lorber treats even its nichiest releases with respect. Extras on the Sex Madness Revealed DVD or Blu-ray include the option to watch the original version of the film with no commentary track, or to listen to a real commentary track from co-writers Tim Kirk and Patrick Cooper overlaid on top of Oswalt and Zabrecky’s fake commentary track. There’s also the trailer for Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and a short installment of Rob Zabrecky’s comedy seance series, “Other Side with Zabrecky,” where comedian Will Forte asks to speak to the spirit of . That last one is pretty weird; and, personally, I enjoyed it more than the feature film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the ‘commentary’ is simply not very funny, and in fact may strike some as downright weird.”–Jeffrey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)