10 posts categorized "Black Comedy"

November 19, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3The title “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” sounds like an oh-so-earnest independent movie based on [ostensibly] real life events that NPR would rally around as a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in the Midwest. It's a clever hook because it fits the deceptive tone of this hilarious satire so well.

And, indeed, that is exactly what NPR’s tone-deaf film critic Bob Mondello took away from this cleverly concealed pitch black comedy based on the age old thesis that “violence begets violence.” Of course, the movie is anything but a fact-based rendition of an actual location in America. Oh the beauty of a well-made allegory.

Well-crafted filmic satires, such as this one from writer/director Martin McDonagh, can sail over the heads of viewers such as Mondello, and still land heads-up every time because they subvert cinematic clichés and dyed-in-the-wool social mores.

Martin McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature “In Bruges” made a splash for its self-referential setting — not unlike “Three Billboards” — that the sharp witted filmmaker utilized to maximum dramatic, and humorous, effect. Since then, McDonagh has made only one other movie (the over-cooked “Seven Psychopaths”) before creating a satire so scathing and cynical that many audiences will take the film’s sucker-punches without even knowing where, why, or even that they’ve been hit.

Francis McDormand

A key element of McDonagh’s subversive success lies in the equal balance he gives to his characters. Each one is revealed in fully formed ways that allow the audience to feel connected to his or her personal perspective without being expected to judge them beyond their immediate actions. For all of its anger and violence, this movie is filled with love.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is a single mother to a teenaged son (played by Lucas Hedges) and to Angela (Kathryn Newton), a similarly aged daughter who was “raped while dying” seven months prior to where our story begins. Understandably distraught over the local police department’s inability to track down her daughter’s killer, Mildred decides to rent out three dilapidated billboards that sit 100 yards from her front door, on a rural backroad that few people travel on anymore. A giant black font on a bright red background connects the three billboards in a unifying all-cap message of furious discontent. In close succession the billboards tell the story. “RAPED WHILE DYING” leads to “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” before attacking Woody Harrelson’s local police chief with, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY.”

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We, the audience, are effortlessly drawn to empathize with Mildred whose outrage seems utterly justified. Chief Willoughby’s personal visit with Mildred exposes his doomed fate with death due to a cancer that threatens to dismantle the search for Angela’s murderer even more. During the scene we get a taste of Mildred’s escalating bitterness. She doesn’t invite sheriff Willoughby inside her house. When the cop discloses his medical dilemma, Mildred callously responds that everyone is dying. Tuned-in audiences might begin to pull back from empathizing with Frances McDormand’s reliably unreliable protagonist.

After the town’s [anti-Mildred] dentist attempts to extract a tooth from Mildred without anesthetizing her first, Mildred wrangles away the drill and buries it deep into the doctor’s thumbnail. For as funny as the scene plays, the violence is disturbing, just as such a thing would be in real life.

Sam rockwell

Mildred’s mirror character is Sam Rockwell’s unhinged dumb-as-bricks police officer Dixon. Sam Rockwell’s keen performance is stunning for his unfettered ability to weave between slapstick and realism with deceptive grace. As the plot plays out, the filmmakers shore up the seeming opposites that unify Dixon and Mildred. In the end we are able to access the victims and the abusers for the harassment and violence they attract, and inflict, on themselves and those around them. This is not a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in America; it is an allegory of Western culture’s ideology of revenge that permeates everything we do in a society overrun with brutality and violence. Figuring out when to laugh or cry, and why, is what this unforgettable black comedy is all about. You'll do both. 

Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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July 31, 2017

AMERICAN PSYCHO — CLASSIC FILM PICK

American_psycho“American Psycho” (made at the turn of the 21st century) is a significant connecting link between the ruthless culture of corporate greed revealed in Oliver Stone’s seminal film “Wall Street” and the ascendency of Donald Trump to the throne of United States President. It’s notable that Stone was temporarily slated to direct “American Psycho,” with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play the lead, before Mary Harron won the gig with her more perfect casting choice of Christian Bale as the soulless Wall Street narcissist Patrick Bateman. Coincidentally, “American Psycho” is set in 1987, the same year that “Wall Street” was released on elite American males all to ready to mistake the film’s satire for economic and political doctrine.

With his perfect swimmer’s bod, Patrick Bateman masks his crippling inferiority complex with money and all of its commercially induced trappings. Patrick is a misogynist bully leaked from Donald Trump’s putrid mold.

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Something as simple as looking at the (superior) business card designs of his three-piece-suit-wearing Wall Street pals sends our obsessively groomed metrosexual Trump-admirer into a mental breakdown that makes up the meat of the movie. Patrick’s affinity for inane pop music allows Harron to ingeniously show the character’s fractured relationship with society and with his own identity. Before attacking his [perceived] biggest rival Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an axe, Patrick allows himself some editorial commentary in the form of a running dialogue with himself that could just as well be memorized lines from an unnamed music critic’s review.  

American Psycho

“He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Distorting reality is the name of the game. “Facts do not matter. Facts do not exist. Reality is a liar, and information is your enemy.” That quote, taken from a Zach Schonfeld piece for Newsweek about how Donald Trump distorts reality, exquisitely pinpoints the mindset of “American Psycho’s” anti-hero Patrick Bateman (Bale).

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More than anything, entitled Patrick wants to “fit in,” namely by inflicting his inflated sense of status on all people he comes in contact with. “His father practically owns the company” he works for. Bateman’s name is an obvious nod to Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Like Norman Bates, Patrick Bateman suffers from a dissociative identity disorder. At times he introduces himself as Pat, or as his perceived rival Paul Allen when opportunity serves him. He gets mistaken for his similarly blank-personality Wall Street associates.

Our reliably unreliable narrator/anti-hero isn’t a human being, he is a product, a false and invisible product of all that is wrong with America.

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Bale’s disconnected persona keeps a running inner dialogue of political correctness that enables him to speak up for defending Jews when a colleague makes an anti-Semitic remark. But deep down Patrick wants to humiliate, mutilate, and kill minorities and women in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Harron weaves feminist commentary through two female victims of Bateman’s deep seeded self-hatred. His secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny) and Christie (Cara Seymour), a street-walker prostitute, serve as opposite sides of the same oppressed female coin. The two women also represent the film’s true protagonists, allowing the audience to empathize in a narrative landscape seemingly devoid of compassion.

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Co-screenwriter/director Harron composes the film with Hitchcock-inspired compositions to charge the script’s paper-dry wit with a palpable combination of pulsing suspense and pitch black comedy. Like all great films, “American Psycho” is one you can discover something new in regardless of how many times you’ve seen it.

Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Mike picked up INDUSTRIAL ARTS POWER TOOLS IPA for our discussion of Mary Harron's unforgettable adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis's AMERICAN PSYCHO. Pull a chair up to the banquet table and join us for one hell of a feast for one hell of a movie!

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October 30, 2012

The Details

The detailsGoing Dark
American Ethics Get Tested

An eight-year absence from filmmaking pays off in spades for writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes — whose feature debut “Mean Creek” made a splash in 2004. Drawing on elements from his own marriage, Estes crafts a snazzy black comedy that frequently dips into the realm of the absurd if not surreal territories of a bent reality.

Tobey Maguire makes for one hell of an anti-protagonist as Dr. Jeffery Lang, a physician whose marginal approach to life means that he cheated his way through medical school. You couldn’t call him likeable, but Maguire manages to keep the audience on his character’s side nonetheless. The filmmaker certainly punishes his wrongheaded protagonist plenty for his sins — some of which are of the indirect variety.

The ingenious narrative kicks off with Dr. Lang taunting the audience in voice-over about how little things like a cheese plate, a bottle of poison, a kidney, and a porn website conspired to crush his ten-year marriage. A piano falls from the sky to smash Jeffery into a pancake. By the end all of the puzzle pieces fit neatly together. And so we have the enjoyment of watching a human “rat” get his gradual comeuppance from a variety of sources.

Marred-life for Jeffery revolves around caring for the worm-rich sod he recently had laid in his backyard. Every night raccoons attack the yard, overturning the sod into a mass of dirt lumps. Jeffery imagines that the sod is at the root of troubles with his attractive wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). The couple hasn’t had sex in over six months, and even then it was “make-up” sex. A shouting match fight puts a real-life tone to the expertly devised comedy at hand. Bitterness and acceptance come with the territory.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its accomplished rendering of every single character. Everyone, from Jeffery’s kooky next-door neighbor Lila (hilariously played by Laura Linney in her funniest performance to date) to his basketball practice pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), registers as a leading character. Kerry Washington shines in a juicy role as Jeffrey’s old college pal Rebecca Mazzoni, the wife of Ray Liotta’s theme-carrying character Peter. Ray Liotta is enjoying something of a career comeback between his impressive performance here, and Andrew Dominik’s Cannes Festival favorite “Killing Them Softly.” Liotta’s contribution to the film’s centerpiece scene of public-spectacle retribution for Jeffrey is a real barnburner. Such sophisticated ensemble black comedies don’t come around often.

“The Details” reflects America’s modern day cynicism derived from its Government-articulated categorical imperative of rewarding corruption — reference the Bush/Obama two trillion seventy billion dollar bailout as a reward to banks, on top of the many billions of dollars the same financial institutions stole with illicit tactics such as credit default swaps. The movie is essentially a comedy of errors that could have been avoided with a more responsible intentionality.

Jeffery can’t get a building permit to make home renovations, so he attempts to placate his neighbor so she won’t report him when he goes ahead with the plans anyway. The one altruistic thing Jeffery does — his one redeeming gesture of profound personal sacrifice — gets rewarded with a shocking bit of misinterpreted violence. Even the act of expressing a vicious wish comes back to haunt him.

Jacob Aaron Estes has made a plucky movie that challenges its audience to examine their own less than ethical behaviors. Just as it is in life, it’s all fun and games until someone looses their household.

Rated R. 91 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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April 23, 2012

Bernie



Bernie_movie_posterEast Texas Folklore
Linklater Goes Regional
By Cole Smithey

Richard Linklater’s impeccable black comedy — based on the real-life exploits of Carthage, Texas mortician Bernie Tiede — is so infectiously eccentric you don’t want the movie to end. In a role he was apparently born to play, Jack Black portrays Bernie, a hopelessly altruistic giver who is not the best judge of character — least of all, his own.

The movie opens with the effeminate Bernie giving an instructional lecture in a classroom auditorium on how best to put the finishing touches on a corpse. Bernie humorously elucidates the importance of gluing shut the eyes and lips, as he demonstrates on the stiff before him.  

Throughout the film, a cadre of Carthage locals provides personal recollections about Bernie, especially as they relate to the town’s wealthiest widow Marjorie Nugent (hilariously played by Shirley MacLaine). Linklater goes for broke using colorful character actors to deliver preciously funny lines. Linklater-regular Matthew McConaughey stands out as the bespectacled Carthage District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, whose crystal-clear memories of Bernie extends to questions of Bernie’s sexuality. “That dog don’t hunt” is how one woman explains Bernie’s lack of interest in women. The comedy is riddled with such humorous colloquialisms indigenous to the East Texas town that Bernie Tiede treated as his personal project for community improvements.

Jack Black savors every ample opportunity to exemplify his well-meaning character’s optimistically generous approach to life through song and sometimes dance. Whether singing alone in his car, for a congregation at a eulogy, in a local theatre production, Bernie is the life of the party. He’s also not uncomfortable with the deceased or even the nearly dead.

Bernie Tiede’s story is not an obvious choice as the subject for a Richard Linklater movie, other than the fact that the saga is part of Texas folklore. As a native Texan, Linklater has expressed his intrinsic affinity for the state’s culture in his early films (see “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused”).

“Bernie” has sparked controversy for [allegedly] not properly representing 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent’s side of the story. The real-life Danny Buck Davidson went so far as to say, “You can’t make a dark comedy out of a murder.” Of course, the attorney is neglecting the fact that murder — or at least death — is one of the fundamental elements of the genre. “Bernie” is about quirky regional characters, and the hilarious ways they express themselves. It is also about two polar-opposite character types that attract, before reaching a volatile schism. If an offhand symptom of the story speaks to the problematic nature of self-sacrifice, then so much the better to prompt serious discussions that can go off in a million different directions. One thing is certain; you’ve never before seen a character quite like Bernie Tiede.

Rated PG-13. 104 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

July 20, 2010

Life During Wartime

Garbled Objectives
Todd Solandz--Same Old Thing
By Cole Smithey


Life_during_wartime Todd Solandz is back once again to beat his convoluted dead-horse themes of race relations and schmaltzy pedophilia. A bookend to his 1998 feel-bad effort "Happiness," "Life During Wartime" reminds us with its theme song that indeed America is still enduring two wars that it would rather forget, or at least redirect the trillions of dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan on economic problems in the good ole U. S. of A. However, the title is misleading because war is an incidental footnote to a gumball rally of pervs, their victims, and not-so-innocent bystanders that fill the film's Jewish Miami setting. Ciaran Hinds takes over the pedophile role of Bill Mablewood that Dylan Baker played in "Happiness." Bill is on the brink of being released from prison just as his ex-wife Trish (Allison Janney) is finally getting on sound romantic footing with a decent new guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) who loves Israel as much as she does. Trish's youngest son, 12-year-old Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), looks forward to his bar mitzvah, but is devastated to learn that the father he had been told was dead, is in fact a convicted pedophile about to be released from prison.

An uncomfortable reunion between their ex-con dad and Timmy's college-aged brother Billy (Chris Marquette)--that Bill Sr. once molested--is enough to curdle milk in your stomach. The filmmaker constructs talky scenes that serve as narrative puzzle pieces that sort of fit together if the viewer is willing to fill in the blanks. Of the other troubled characters that populate the film's circle of depressed individuals, there's the childlike Joy (Shirley Henderson), a poor judge of character who spends quality time with her not-so-reformed-ex-con husband (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the ghost of her ex-boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide and still wants to torment Joy with his emotional pain. Joy might not be very smart but she is patient--more patient than most audiences will be.

Todd Solandz has worn out his welcome as an enfant terrible. He's too old for that pose. Here is an undisciplined filmmaker who specializes in conjuring up creepy scenarios between adults and children to an undisclosed thematic goal. A fumbled attempt at creating an overriding statement about "forgetting but not forgiving," backfires on a film that elicits just such a reaction from its audience.

New Jersey-born Todd Solandz burst onto the post-Tarantino indie free-for-all in 1995 with "Welcome to the Dollhouse." It was a respectable dark comedy about Dawn, a 7th grade insecure outsider (Heather Matarazzo) whose ugly glasses barely contained her boiling lust for life. With his own affectation of gratuitous horn-rimmed glasses, Solandz struck a pose as an angry young independent filmmaker unwilling to compromise. Critics wined and dined on his sarcasm but it took Solandz three years to make his next film "Happiness," and the cracks in the facade were beginning to show. Here was an exploitation filmmaker piecing together reprehensible behavioral traits into a conglomeration of unlikable characters ala John Waters, except without the charm. Between more three-year breaks, Solandz produced "Storytelling" (2001) and "Palindromes" (2004) that equally displayed a similar tin ear for the daily struggles of ethically challenged people and their victims.

It's clear that Todd Solandz has some serious social issues he's attempting to work out in his films, but his limited grasp of dramaturgy prevents him from expressing his garbled objectives. If we are all so easily manipulated by our own lusts and misunderstood loyalties as the characters in "Life During Wartime" then war must necessarily be an ongoing fact of life that will never cease.

Rated R. 109 mins. (C-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

March 29, 2010

Don McKay

Low Motive
Thomas Haden Church Goes Dark
By Cole Smithey

Don mckay More a black comedy than the intended "neo-noir" that newbie auteur Jake Goldberger aspires to, "Don McKay" is a droll little independent flick for audiences with dark tastes. Thomas Haden Church is commanding as the poker faced title character who takes time away from his job as a high school janitor to reconnect with his childhood sweetheart Sonny (Elizabeth Shue) in their hometown. Sonny is allegedly dying of cancer when Don shows up at her rural home where Sonny's strict nurse Marie (Melissa Leo) keeps a close eye on Don. With a femme fatale glint in her eye Sonny wants to marry Don before she expires, but Sonny's doctor (James Rebhorn) doesn't cotton much to the couple's intimate acquaintance. One sudden murder leads to an unraveling of lies and promises that almost come together in one neatly packaged puzzle. The performances rise above the material in this roughly hewn debut experiment by a filmmaker who still needs to master the form of his chosen genre before he steps behind the camera again.

There's a line of thought in screenwriting that it takes about 25 scripts for a screenwriter to master his or her craft. Jake Goldberger liberally sites the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" as the "slowly paced little film noir" that inspired him to write "Don McKay." Already, we start to see the holes in Goldberger's thinking. Where he views the Coen Brothers' 1984 suspense masterpiece as "slow" and "little," I would proffer that it is confident and methodical--two key ingredients missing from "Don McKay." Goldberger also sites Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, David Mamet, and even Douglas Sirk as influential touchstones, completely missing the enormous depths that each of these filmmakers went to in preparing each of their films. In his impatience at attempting what it took those masters years to develop, Goldberg rushes into and through scenes without giving proper attention to building character, plot, and theme lines within the necessary win-or-lose constraints of dramatic narrative structure.

That said, Jake Goldberger gets very lucky for a first-timer. Casting M. Emmet Walsh ("Blood Simple") as the taxi driver who brings Don to Sonny's house, and later gets hustled into the film's rushed climax, gives the story an illusion of noir atmosphere. That Goldberger doesn't know what to do with such a gift comes with diminished rewards, but by then you're already happily seduced by Walsh's effortless ability to create a sense of off-kilter humor and subtle menace even if it never pays off. 

By far, it's Thomas Haden Church--executive producer on the film--who compensates most for the film's numerous narrative shortcomings. The same actor who elevated Alexander Payne's "Sideways" (2004) to comedy of sublime proportions, here exerts an ingrained seriousness for his hapless character to fill the narrative void with palpable interest and curiosity. "Don McKay" is a drama about a lonely man who carries a terrible mistake he made as a teenager with him through every minute of his daily existence. It's a condition that makes him involuntarily unable to avoid certain emotionally baited traps regardless of how poorly they're laid. Herein lies the opportunity for dark humor and imminent bloodletting that such a diabolical plan would allow. If "Don McKay" is an overly simple plan, it is at least a dramatic vacuum filled by an actor capable of making you want him to prevail regardless of his character's lowly motivations.

Rated R. 87 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

 

September 28, 2009

A Serious Man

Slipping Up
Coen Brothers Miss Rather than Hit
By Cole Smithey

A serious man

Halfway through the Coen Brothers' thinly veiled treatise on the mistreatment of suburban American Jews during the late '60s, arises a question about who the serious man of the film's title might be. Clearly, it must be family man Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a tenure-seeking math professor, who worries incessantly over his son Danny's (Aaron Wolff) upcoming bar mitzvah and over his adulterous wife's decision to run off with touchy-feely widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The trouble is that Larry isn't serious enough about his life to lay down any boundaries. He's a grin-and-bear-it type who doesn't even have the wherewithal to throw out his couch-surfing physics professor brother Arthur, or go to his administration when a student bribes him for a passing grade. There isn't as much humor as the filmmakers imagine in watching put-upon Larry sit in meetings with patronizing or unapproachable rabbis, much less in watching a character who is more of a serious doormat than a serious man. Compartmentalized subplots--like one about a dentist who discovers the words "Help Me" engraved in Hebrew on the back of a white man's teeth--are left open ended, as if a show of insider's absurdist humor will fill in this gaping wound of a movie.

Over their 25-year career as filmmakers the Coen Brothers have established a hit-or-miss pattern that allows audiences to practically guess the timing of their next flop. "A Serious Man" is the brothers' 13th film. It comes on the heels of two successful movies--"Burn After Reading" (2008) and "No Country for Old Men" (2007). Before that, the brothers slumped with a duo of lackluster efforts ("The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty"), that had been preceded by the underrated "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), and the hilarious music tour "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000). The pattern points out the brothers' proclivity for taking risks in pushing forward the style of dry dark comedy that they established well with "Raising Arizona" (1987). It's clear that the Coens are committed to reinvesting profits made on their successes to finance personal visions that would otherwise never see the light of day.

"A Serious Man" is not an awful movie, and it may well be a fantastic film for the audience that the Coens are speaking to. This is a film made to address, in coded terms, a very personal agenda of reflections and influences during a time in the '60s just before the period of Ang Lee's "Woodstock" which enabled a cross-cultural catharsis for many thousands of lost souls--or not. There exists a certain non-ironic unity between the two movies because they are both coming-of-age stories, albeit for different generations of Jewish males caught up is a similar American cultural zeitgeist.

It's not so much that "A Serious Man" isn't accessible--it is that. But the film never sets down parameters. There are guffaw-inducing bits of slapstick, but never any sense of which arcane aside or comic tone to believe. Larry's redneck Minnesota neighbor hates Larry from the well of his soul. He's a racist that Larry dreams of confronting but doesn't have the guts to carry out. The neighbor is a mute stereotype who never rises above anything more than a stereotype caricature. Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a bad animal paled only by her truly mean-spirited suitor Sy Ableman. Larry is caught between seeking guidance from his religion, and breaking out of his timid mold to actually manage his life, but the filmmakers renege on choosing a bold decision for Larry to carry out. Instead, they substitute a tableau of natural disaster that could be read as an afterthought ending that was designed to mask the absence of the closure that the brothers had in mind but were too afraid to commit to film.
(Focus Features) Rated R. 104 mins. (C) (Two Stars)

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