Tag Archives: Romantic Comedy

CAPSULE: ELECTRIC DREAMS (1984)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barron

FEATURING: Lenny von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Maxwell Caulfield, Bud Cort

PLOT: A socially inept architect buys a newfangled home computer to help him in his work, but an accident bestows sentience upon the machine and inadvertently helps spark a romance with the cellist who lives upstairs; tensions flare when the computer’s newfound emotions blossom into jealousy.

Still from Electric Dreams (1984)

COMMENTS: Steve Barron has multiple feature film credits, including the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. He has also directed several TV miniseries and episodes. But who are we kidding? If you really want to talk about the man’s directorial c.v., then you need to recognize that Steve Barron is an MTV god. From the dawn of the genre, some of the most memorable, enduring music videos ever made find Steve Barron in the director’s chair. That’s where Barron’s career truly excelled. So it’s only appropriate that when he was hired to helm his first feature film, the result was akin to an extended music video.

Like any decent video, Electric Dreams lives and dies by its montages, and fortunately it has many of them. Whenever nebbishy Miles (Lenny von Dohlen in full proto-David Schwimmer mode) wants to do something, it’s likely going to be accomplished in a montage: wiring his apartment to be controlled by his mainframe Alexa ancestor;  struggling to design an earthquake-proof brick;  romping around Alcatraz with his new girlfriend. The film’s most successful sequence is a literal music video, a duet between cellist Madeline and Miles’ computer that showcases the work of composer/electronica pioneer . As editor Peter Honess splices together clips from cinematographer Alex Thomson’s swooping camera to the beat of a propulsive pop tune, the sequences are genuinely energizing, only to be cooled off by the return to the Cyrano-lite plot. It’s not that the movie lacks for dialogue scenes or traditional means of delivering the story. They’re just not where Electric Dreams shines. Those little 3-minute morsels of video ecstasy give the film its juice.

The movie knows it, too, because they let a lot of the story ideas fall by the wayside. Early on, Miles’ technophobia seems like it might be a justifiable fear of a too-powerful computerized singularity with omnipresent cameras and techie doodads, but that concern is quickly abandoned. Miles appears to have a rival for Madeline’s affections, a classic 80s villainous blonde hunk in the person of Maxwell Caulfield, but that, too, never amounts to much. It sometimes feels like nothing that can’t be delivered via montage is worth following. Indeed, the film falters when it has to engage in dialogue, such as Madeline’s determined ignorance toward Miles’ behavior, or the arguments between Miles and his increasingly whiny computer Edgar (although God help me, I chuckled everytime Edgar called him by his typo-induced moniker “Moles”). Electric Dreams is a high-concept movie that doesn’t want to go any further than its concept.

That said, there’s an extraordinary level of foresight at play. Our first look at Miles’ world is one where technology is pervasive and everyone has outsourced their attention to electronics; this is 1984, but the fears of then could easily be the complaints of today. And the breadth of abilities that the computers of 1984 can accomplish are startlingly forward-looking, from the internet of things to CAD to catfishing. A scene where Edgar vengefully destroys Miles’ credit must have seemed like the stuff of fantasy 40 years ago, and yet here we are, in thrall to and afraid of our machines. A lot of science fiction movies have tried really hard to see the future in ways the Electric Dreams pulls off almost as an afterthought.

It’s a genuine shame that Electric Dreams doesn’t have a more prominent place in the conversation when it comes to identifying the most 80s movie ever made. Whatever qualities the film you think deserves the title holds, I can assure you that Electric Dreams has it in ample supply. The fashion and hairstyles, the steady use of jingle-laden advertisements, a young and effervescent Virginia Madsen. And most of all, that synth-fueled song score featuring luminaries of the day like Culture Club, Jeff Lynne, Heaven 17, and a real earworm of a theme song sung by Human League’s Phil Oakey. All that adds up to a movie that has aged into its weirdness over time, reading as stranger in retrospect thanks in part to its unexpected precognitive abilities and Mr. Barron’s skill with a montage. So it’s not a great movie. But it is, like, totally awesome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps it’s because the world resembles our own so much, that the fact that everything is just slightly wrong seems intensely magnified. Perhaps it’s because computers are no longer mystical, and the things that the movie tries to sell as ‘what the hell, who knows how these damn things work, anyway?’ do not seem plausible in any way. Perhaps it’s seeing people doing what we do, only they have ’80s clothes and ’80s hair. Whatever the hell is doing it, it means that Electric Dreams is like reading a transcript of an opium dream – you can see real life underpinning it, but the effect is otherworldly and uncanny, and it’s the most amazing damn thing.

Which is exactly why I feel like I’d have ignored if not hated this movie when it was new: all of the things that seem dazzlingly weird about it now were just the world outside in 1984.” – Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CITIZEN DOG (2004)

Mah Nakorn

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wisit Sasanatieng

FEATURING: Mahasamut Boonyaruk, Saengthong Gate-Uthong

PLOT: Pod moves to Bangkok, despite his grandmother’s warning he will grow a tail if he does so, and falls in love with Jin, a woman of serial obsessions—none of which involve Pod.

Still from Citizen Dog (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It begins with Pod losing his finger at his sardine-canning job (he gets it back later). It ends on a mountain of plastic bottles that dominates the Bangkok skyline. In between, it indulges in a subplot about an affair between a girl who’s either 8 or 22 years old and her talking teddy bear. Oh, and it’s also intermittently a musical. Citizen Dog takes a lot of lunatic swings, and still manages to remain a crowd-pleasing romance.

COMMENTS: Pod and Jin are each, in their own way, searching for a dream, while not realizing that they are living in one. Jin dreams of one day reading the book that fell out of the sky and landed on her deck, written in a language unknown to her; later, she is able to put that dream to one side to pursue an obsession with saving the planet via recycling. Pod, meanwhile, is introduced to us as “a man without a dream”—at least, until he encounters Jin and quickly falls in love. Jin drifts from dream to dream, risking devastation when her plans don’t turn out as she expects, while Pod drifts from job to job, too scared to commit to anything and declare his feelings. Meanwhile, both of them miss the magic of the world around them.

The viewer doesn’t make that mistake, however. Wisit Sasanatieng drenches his movie in some of the boldest color schemes ever ladled on the big screen. Pod leaves a country home where swaths of golden grass grow from russet dirt, waving against a painted backdrop sky with an eternally glowing sun, and lands in a busy Bangkok where he gets a job at a ruby and emerald colored sardine-processing factory where even the fish have pink eyes. The people who populate the city are even stranger than their visual environments: a zombie taxi driver, killed during one of the city’s periodic rains of helmets; an amnesiac obsessed with licking; a talking teddy bear, who’s also a chain smoker who falls on hard times and turns homeless. Don’t worry, there are plenty more crazy characters where those came from, along with breaks for musical numbers, sequences that are sped-up or which play out in lethargic slow motion, and a gecko sex scene. Citizen Dog never runs out of ideas to throw at the viewer; but for Pod and Jin, it’s all just part of everyday life in the big city.

In conventional terms, Citizen Dog fails as a romantic comedy, because it never convincingly shows how Pod wins Jin’s heart. Dreamy Jin is completely blind to Pod’s devotion up into the final scene, when she suddenly succumbs to a short sappy speech and a kiss. But who cares? In unconventional terms, the movie succeeds brilliantly; each part of the series of almost-unconnected vignettes is a miniature joke brilliant enough to keep you eagerly awaiting the next one, so that you don’t really notice (or care much) about Jin’s lack of romantic development.

Citizen Dog‘s blend of old-fashioned romance and digitally-enhanced surrealism often draws comparisons to Amelie (2001). Tonally, however, it more resembles ‘s Mood Indigo (2013), in that it creates a whimsically unreal but fully lived-in universe where absolutely anything can happen. The difference is that Citizen Dog remains lighthearted to the end, never succumbing to the darkness that envelops the moody Indigo.

The genesis of Citizen Dog is as odd as its story line. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Koynuch. But, in a twist, Koynuch’s novel was itself an adaptation of Sasanatieng’s original unpublished screenplay! Once Koynuch gave Sasanatieng’s collection of vignettes without a story a unifying theme of dreams, the director felt he could come back to the script he’d abandoned and turn it into a feature film.

Sasanatieng’s first movie, Tears of the Black Tiger, was a Spaghetti Western parody with vividly artificial visuals similar to Citizen Dog. Both movies were minor hits with film-festival followers, although Dog is the more accessible of the two. But none of Sasanatieng’s subsequent movies have made much headway in the West, although he is still active. Unfortunately, Citizen Dog is not currently available on home video or (although you might be able to find a used all-region DVD on Ebay or other sources—be cure to confirm English subtitles are included). Tears of the Black Tiger, on the other hand, is still easy to acquire.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“People are able to swap fingers, they can grow tails, teddy bears are able to talk and sometimes it rains helmets. And that’s just a small selection of the weirdness this films throws at you. None of these things are ever properly explained, they’re just a part of the surreal world the characters inhabit and have to deal with on a daily basis.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy

(This movie was nominated for review by Welrax. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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)

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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)