Tag Archives: Romantic Comedy

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: BLUE MOVIE (1971)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wim Verstappen

FEATURING: Hugo Metsers, Helmert Woudenberg, Carry Tefsen, Ursula Blauth, Kees Brusse

PLOT: Michael has just been released from prison and has been advised to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but finding himself in an apartment block teeming with sexually precocious women is making that difficult.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blue Movie has all the characteristics of a standard studio film: a straightforward narrative, technical proficiency, and rather good acting. And plenty of sex. We at 366 do not consider sex to be weird.

COMMENTS: A colleague described Blue Movie to me as “basically a porno” — which I assure you was not the reason I volunteered to review it. From my history of watching low-rent “giallo” pictures, I’m used to the threat of nude elements (and the accompanying threat of lilting synth music). That said, I was happily surprised by Wim Verstappen’s notorious picture, and found that while it largely failed in a pornographic sense, it succeeded handily as a quirky romantic comedy.

The story begins with Michael (Hugo Metsers) as he is released from prison for a sexual offense, having enjoyed himself carnally with a fifteen-year-old girl some five years earlier. His parole officer, Eddie (Helmert Woudenberg), is keen to have his ward integrate into society, arranging for an apartment, lining up a job interview, and vetting some of his new neighbors to find a “nice young woman from a good family.” When Michael moves into his new apartment, he immediately finds distraction in the form of the countless married (and open-minded) housewives who live along the same corridor. After some shenanigans, Michael, in his way, begins to start a new life professionally, arranging a big block party while launching his sex service syndicate.

Blue Movie made quite a splash at the time of its release, resulting in a lot of hand-wringing on the part of more upright Dutch (and international) citizens. Large chunks of the movie are, indeed, akin to softcore pornography, but as much as possible, the sex is handled not just tastefully, but also with a refreshing sense of joie-de-vivre. It helps that Michael has a quiet charm that works quickly on his neighbors, and that Eddie is an hilarious foil as the eager-to-please parole officer. When visiting Michael to drop off a bookcase for him, Eddie is concerned that Michael might be up some sexual mischief. He is right to be, as Mrs Cohn (neighbor, and wife of the famed zoologist next door) sneaks around the apartment’s periphery in a well-executed bit of rom-com foolishness.

The whole movie has a light and breezy tone that simultaneously shows off a lot of pro-sexual sex alongside social commentary (“All of Amsterdam is like this”) and playful subversion. Blue Movie also flirts with a tiny bit of weirdness in the continual, cheeky musical cues that toy with the audience. Teasingly suggesting a bit of impending smut, more often than not a light synth tune hearkens nothing beyond cutesy comedy. By subverting this expectation, Blue Movie goes a long way to normalize the idea that sex, at least in the post-Pill, pre-AIDS world, was something to approach with a smile bordering on a laugh. And by touching on men, women, the gay, the straight, the bisexual, and even the asexual, it attains an open-minded, relaxed feel that modern sex cinema would do well to reemploy. As a film that hovers near the realm of a triple-x rating, Blue Movie is a nice reminder that good movies can have good sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The twists that occur while Michael entertains his neighbors are quite predictable, so it is really the blending of the funny and the serious that makes them effective. Also, the film ends with a very bold segment questioning the relationship between sex and love that was almost certainly debated ad nauseam. “–Dr. Svet Atanaov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aubrey Plaza, , Craig Robinson, , Matt Berry

PLOT: Lulu is unhappy with her cappuccino-store managing husband, so she runs off with a man who stole money from him to go see an old flame’s “one night only” performance at a nearby hotel.

Still from An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though advertised in-film as a “magical” evening with Beverly Luff Linn, the onscreen evening is not so much “magical” as “eccentric.” Luff Linn is a hulking teddy bear, leaking stuffing, and with one eye holding on by a thread. It stays surprisingly true to romantic comedy conventions while employing light, sub-Brechtian alienation techniques.

COMMENTS: For a few viewers, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn will be their first exposure to the weird world of Jim Hosking. Most, especially readers of this site, will be drawn to it to see what the director of 2016’s transgressive The Greasy Strangler would come up with given a bigger budget and professional actors. The answer is that he compromised by scaling back the most aggressively bizarre elements of his shock debut, while still indulging in enough skewed reality to keep the comedy firmly on the surreal side of the ledger. So, for example, in Luff Linn you will see cigarette snuffed out in an absurdly oversized meatball, but no baths in vats of half-congealed grease; a couple of characters repeating the word “immediately” across scenes, but no painfully extended “bullshit artist” segments; Craig Robinson in a 40s-style one-piece bathing suit, but no full-frontal prosthetic nudity. Whereas Strangler felt a little dangerous, like  meets , Beverly is more like a  awkward/quirky concoction, slightly out of step with reality, but without the offal and outrageousness. The results are not entirely satisfactory, but they are also not nearly as much of a sell-out as they might have been.

The plot, although a bit shaggy, is not so bad, with Lulu’s urge to reconnect with a younger and more vital romance bumping up against a couple of subplots in her husband’s suburban gangsta theft of a cashbox and Luff Lin’s mysterious melancholy (which results in his only being able to communicate in Frankenstein grunts for the much of the movie). Aubrey Plaza’s sarcastic resentment, Jermaine Clement’s clueless earnestness, and Emile Hirsch’s petty criminality are perfect matches to the material, but Craig Robinson doesn’t come over as the kind of charismatic mentor Lulu would fall for (which is perhaps part of the joke), and Matt Berry makes little impression as Luff Lin’s platonic partner/manager. Hoskins sprinkles in supporting performances from a couple of his regular stock company: Sky Elobar as a cappuccino-store henchman and Sam “potato” Dissanayake as an angry yet polite convenience store owner. He also finds a few more odd-faced weirdos to add freaky texture in a moon-faced toady and a hulking, pasty hotel clerk with a Ren-faire hairstyle. Though set in the present day, the anachronistic circa 1970s wardrobe choices—Colin’s turtleneck sweater and amber-tinted tinted eyeglasses—garb a world out of whack. It’s the kind of movie where three amateur robbers go on a robbery wearing women’s wigs as disguises, but never bother to cover their familiar faces. Low synths lay a doomy horror movie soundtrack over what is basically a light comedy, adding yet another level of alienation.

And yet, for all its absurdist insouciance, Luff Linn surprisingly has heart—something conspicuously lacking in Greasy Strangler. The boy gets the girl—the right boy gets the girl. The sentimentality may be a put-on, or it may be a concession, but it feels like an honest choice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but oddballs who love weirdo cinema will probably get a kick out of An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn.”–Diedre Crimmins, High-Def Digest (festival screening)

CAPSULE: NIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Kana Hanazawa,

PLOT: A shy, lovestruck senior follows a peppy junior (“the Girl with Black Hair”) from afar over an almost endless surreal night that includes philosophical drinking contests, an encounter with the God of Used Books, a peripatetic musical theater, and a cold epidemic.

Still from Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At this writing, there are only five slots remaining on the List. If not for that shortage, Walk on Girl might have a shot. Fortunately, we already have a slightly more famous, slightly better movie to represent Masaaki Yuasa on the List—but if he keeps making anime this weird, we may have to reconsider that hard 366 cap.

COMMENTS: A cross-dresser, a man who has vowed not to change his underwear, and a love-besotted student walk into a bar… Well, actually it’s a wedding reception, not a bar, and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is not a joke, although it is a comedy. Nevertheless, that is the opening setup for a yarn that will quickly unfurl into a surrealistic nocturnal journey. The object of the student’s affections is the Girl, who starts with her own romance-free agenda: she wants to experience adulthood, and figures the best way to do this is through a night of heavy drinking. As she meets perverts, sophists and fellow drinkers, the evening develops into a quest for a mysterious liquor known as Imitation Denki Bran, climaxing in a drinking contest against an elderly pessimist. Meanwhile, her admirer has his underwear stolen and discovers his friend leads a secret team of electronically-omniscient high school hackers. And all that’s just in the first 20-30 minutes; the not-so-short night has many more wonders to unfurl, including another competition (this time involving lava-eating), musical numbers from “The Codger of Monte Cristo” (with meta-lyrics referring to both the main plot and subplots), and a flying fever dream finale.

The look of the film is bright and clean, with a mild retro feel: space age graphics and clean modernism, with bold use of color and geometric motifs—especially flower petals, which go drifting through the canvases like blossoms falling off invisible psychedelic cherry trees. There are plenty of abstract sequences, split screens, hallucinations, and other animated digressions, but the transition between styles flows smoothly, not chaotically as in Yuasa’s previous Mind Game. The story glides along from incident to incident in a similarly fluid fashion. Episodes are packed inside four major chapters: bar hopping, the used book fair, the play, and the cold that lays the entire neighborhood low. It’s a pleasant structure to organize the anything-can-happen action and keep us from getting totally lost in the film’s hubbub.

Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is weird, but light. The title character’s girlish optimism sets a sprightly, happy tone. While her pursuer’s actions sometimes verge on the stalkerish, we never doubt the purity of his affection, and we naturally root for the two to get together. Girl‘s dream logic is totally blissed-out; someone must have spiked the imitation brandy with mescaline. It’s a night well spent; you may even wish it was longer.

Night Is Short, Walk on Girl played theaters in a limited engagement over the past summer. It’s scheduled to appear on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in January 2019.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, very bemusing and sometimes wonderful anime…”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE RELATIONTRIP (2017)

DIRECTED BY: C.A. Gabriel, Renée Felice Smith

FEATURING: Matt Bush, Renée Felice Smith, voice of Eric Christian Olsen

PLOT: A couple of neurotic, directionless twentysomethings take a weekend trip that turns into a fantastical, compressed version of a relationship.

Still from The Relationtrip (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a reasonably hip twist on the romantic comedy formula with a few clever (and borderline surreal) ideas. The Relationtrip pleasantly tweaks the romantic comedy formula, but takes care not to twist it so hard that it can’t snap back into shape in time for the expected resolution.

COMMENTS: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Depressed twentysomething loser plays video games all day. Is talked into going to a party full of strangers where he does something embarrassing. Cute girl there approaches him. They bond. Go out for tacos. Witty repartee. They complain about all their friends getting all married and boring. They dare each other to take a trip together—but promise they’ll stay just friends. They fall in love. A secret emerges that threatens their budding romance. They break up. They each have an epiphany about how fear and insecurity keeps them from finding happiness. A speech demonstrating personal growth. They get back together.

OK, maybe you have. But have you heard these? The couple peel each others’ faces off at breakfast. They lie in a hammock that turns into a cocoon. Turns out the girl is a never-nude. There’s a dead angel stripper stag film. A visit from a giant mommy. A couples counselor in a pillow fort. A fight with an abusive beer-drinking puppet.

The Relationtrip takes the pop-psychology clichés of screen (and real) relationships and serves them up as big, absurd, literal metaphors. It’s an idea that’s clever enough to be amusing without being subversive. It’s a parody, not a satire, and the movie still believes in love and in all its expected obstacles. The young actors are good-looking and likable, although their constant armor of hipster irony can grow wearisome. The concept is high enough that I can’t help but wonder whether this might have been a box office hit with better-known leads, a quirkier best friend confidant, a killer one-liner or two, and a script that dialed back the surrealism just a tad. And a less clunky title, of course.

Although the word “weird” gets bandied around a lot in discussions of this one—they even stuck it in the official synopsis—you’re not going to mistake Relationtrip for does When Harry Met Sally or anything. On the other hand, if you’re reading this site, you’re probably not a particular fan of formulaic romantic comedies; this is one that you’re likely to find tolerable, and maybe even involving.

The co-writers/co-directors are a real-life couple. You might recognize Renée Felice Smith from “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the road trip rolls on, ‘The Relationtrip’ gets weird. Not cute-silly weird, but clever-smart weird, all bolstered by Smith and Bush’s fun and easy chemistry.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alex Sharp, , Tom Brooke,

PLOT: An aspiring teenage punk in 1970s London meets a cute girl; only catch is, she’s an alien.

Still from How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This light-hearted artistic fling between the offbeat talents of director John Cameron Mitchell and writer meets its quota of whimsical sweetness, but falls short in terms of weirdness.

COMMENTS: I was completely alone in the theater on a Monday night screening of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. When I bought my ticket the high school cashier on a summer job assumed I was asking to see Life of the Party (ouch!). Hopefully, the empty seats were just a sign of distributor A24’s compromising to commercial realities—better to suck it up and slot this curio’s release in the heat of summer up against Han Solo and the Avengers than to let it slink off to video unscreened—and not a sign of total lack of public interest in the project. While Girls is not a must-see cult hit, it’s not a waste of time, either; at the very least, it’s an unconventional offering that could find a future Netflix audience of adventurous youngsters.

Girls is a period teen romantic comedy with the slightest tinge of punk and sci-fi flavor, more Earth Girls Are Easy (or even Splash) than Liquid Sky. Around the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), a trio of socially inept teenage punks stumble into the wrong party in Croydon while on the prowl for girls. While the fat kid and the self-appointed pick-up artist wander around scoping out the shapely bodies in tight latex unitards doing Cirque du Soleil acrobatic routines to whalesong electronica, the sweetest and most talented, Enn, stumbles upon a newly “manifested” alien Zan (Elle Fanning, who, God love her, is still seeking out the weirdest roles she can find rather than settling for a part as a minor X-Man character). After Enn explains the basics of his punk philosophy to the girl, Zan seeks, and is reluctantly granted, a dispensation to experience human life for 48 hours (“do more punk to me,” she croons to Enn). The remainder of the plot arc is easy to guess: the mismatched pair court, with the normal teenage social awkwardness amplified by an alien culture clash, while Zan’s “colony” (whom Enn and friends believe to be a cannibalistic California cult) pressure her to get her back into the fold. There’s some mild weirdness along the way: an out-of-place (and not-too-effective) psychedelic music video when Zan improvises a punk number onstage (“we must have been dosed,” Enn reasons); perverse alien sex practices better left undescribed; a conception scene with eggs like yellow party balloons and sperm that looks like a 3D model of a rhinovirus; Nicole Kidman as bitchy aging punk godmother Boadicea; and an underwhelming punks vs. aliens showdown that might have been huge if given a proper B-movie treatment. Overall, the movie has a good-natured, unthreatening-yet-rebellious spirit, and some eye candy in the costuming (each of the alien colonies sports its own sartorial theme). Still, the reveal of the ultimate nature of the alien cult(s) suggests many potentially more interesting stories than the John Hughes-y tale that actually unfolds here.

Multiple reviewers have complained that Girls is trying “too hard” to be a cult movie. This criticism comes from a perspective I’m not quite able to grasp; it’s probably a variation on the old “weird for weirdness’ sake” saw. I suppose the complaint is based on the premise that cult movies can only arise by happy accident when the director was actually trying to do something “more authentic”; this can be easily disproven by dozens of examples (including, I’d argue, one from this very same director). Whether you think it succeeds or not, Girls isn’t trying too hard; it’s just trying to be what it is, which just happens to be something a bit different from what critics and audiences expect.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fully invested in exploring the weird, but not always the funny.”–Chris Hewitt, Empire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GHAJINI (2008)

DIRECTED BY: A.R. Murugadoss

FEATURING: Aamir Khan, Asin, Pradeep Rawat, Jiah Khan

PLOT: A dashing young CEO suffering short-term memory loss hunts the gangster who killed his fiancée.

Still from Ghajini (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghajini is mostly just clumsy blockbuster entertainment, appearing weird only to Westerners unfamiliar with Bollywood’s much looser tolerance of narrative coherence. In its home country, it was actually a hit, both financially and with critics.

COMMENTS: At about the thirty-minute mark of Ghajini, an unprepared viewer might assume someone at the DVD factory in New Delhi messed up and burned reels from a different movie onto the disc. Up until this point, you’ve been watching a dark revenge thriller about a tattooed amnesiac maniac. Suddenly, a narrator introduces himself as Sanjay Singhania, suave cell phone magnate, a prelude which segues into an MTV-style video with dancing girls, and then we find ourselves immersed in a sappy mistaken-identity romantic comedy, with a model pretending she’s Sanjay’s boyfriend, while unbeknownst to her he’s pretending to be an actor helping her with her deception… try not to get whiplash from one of the most violent tone shifts you’ve ever seen in a commercial film. What turns out to be a flashback lasts for about 45 minutes (with more upbeat musical numbers), ending on a “will they get married” cliffhanger… and then we’re back in the first movie, where the tattooed man delivers a brutal beating to the police officer who had been reading his diary. We’ll return to the lighthearted romantic comedy again later, which ends as all good comedies do… with the brutal torture and killing of the female lead after she uncovers a kidney-stealing ring preying on orphan girls.

Ghajini is pretty exhausting, honestly. It steals borrows plenty from the (vastly superior) thriller Memento, only with an anti-hero who has gained bone-crunching kickboxing skills along with short-term memory loss from a blow to the head. Oh, and musical numbers, and, as mentioned, a romantic comedy with a tragic ending as a bonus film. All this in a mere three hours! If you’re looking for even more, there’s the hammy performance of beefy Aamir Khan, who, despite his impressive physique, turns out to be better suited to comedy than action/drama (where he relies on over-the-top, animalistic howls and face-churning grimaces to convey grief). You also may have fun picking out the plot holes, like the basic question: why, if the hero is a multi-millionaire, does he choose to live like a squatter in a run-down apartment rather than using the vast resources at his disposal to bring his enemy to justice? I mean, a competent personal assistant would have been far more helpful in keeping him on-task in his revenge quest than a bunch of mysterious scribbled notes, Polaroids, and tattoos are.

My guess is that the romantic comedy portion of the film (which has no third act) was adapted from an unpublished screenplay the studio had lying around, and incorporated to provide chick appeal and a more natural substrate for the mandatory Bollywood musical numbers. To make things even more confusing, Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of a 2005 Tamil-language film of the same name, by the same director, with some of the same cast. complained about Ghajini‘s similarities to Memento but did not take legal action; however, Murugadoss was sued (and even briefly arrested) by the producers of Ghajini (2005) for not properly securing remake rights.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experience almost too stimulating for the non-Indian nervous system, a blockbuster layer cake of full-strength escapist entertainment.”–David Chute, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “jenn” who called it “an indian remake of ‘momento’… its a bit weird… its like momento, u know…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)