Tag: comedy

Flower


Flower (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another film that attempts to pull off dark comedy but its screenplay is so devoid of genuine human drama that it ends up simply parading forced bad behavior. It is supposed to be shocking in content, but those who have experience with films that deal with teenage angst are highly likely to end up unimpressed. In the middle of its desert boredom, I thought I’d rather revisit the likes of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion.” At least those films are not afraid to push the envelope so far that tension accumulates like a great storm about to burst.

The tale in this miscalculation involves a sixteen-year-old named Erica who engages in oral sex with older men while her friends (Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet) record from a distance. In exchange for their silence, the unsuspecting men are forced to provide cash. Erica is played by Zoey Deutch whose talents are wasted here. While she commands the camera every time she is in front of it, the character remains uninteresting throughout because Erica lacks believable interior details. Notice how the more dramatic scenes, particularly those between Erica and her mother (Kathryn Hahn), come across as awkward at best. On top of this, we are supposed to empathize with Erica somehow as she concocts a plan to punish the man (Adam Scott) who was accused of having molested her stepbrother (Joey Morgan).

The most convincing element about the film are its extras. For instance, look at the background of scenes taking place at school. These are not fake teenagers. They look, dress, and act like real teens with genuine thoughts and problems. Notice the way they stand in one place and carry themselves as they walk. When there is a fight, there is almost apathy in their eyes—like it is the sort of thing that happens around them every day.

Authenticity is a crucial element that teen comedy-dramas cannot buy with effects or create out of forced conflict. It must be written into the script as if it were the very marrow that maintains everything else. Look at the way Erica interacts with her friends. They are supposed to be enjoying each other’s company as miscreants but we, the audience, do not feel their joy of being bad. Even the parents are cardboard cutouts. The screenplay fails to provide a strong background in its subjects’ lives.

Some dark comedies offer such wild premises that we question whether they are supposed to be comedies. Here, I just found the whole charade to be repulsive. I felt as though Max Winkler, the director, never takes accusations of sexual molestation in a serious manner. Its approach is almost always flippant to the point where it disregards real-life issues and their consequences. Had there been a balance between hyperbole and subtlety, it could have made a strong statement about the current state of our society.

Appropriate Behavior


Appropriate Behavior (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

After breaking up with her girlfriend, Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) attempts to explore her sexuality by going on dates with men and women. These encounters often lead to sex. Still, she can’t quite place what is missing or put her hand on what she needs. This leads to more confusion, frustration, and willingness to meet strangers who may or may not offer answers she is searching for.

Written, directed, and starring Desiree Akhavan, “Appropriate Behavior” is not quite a riotously funny comedy but it does have enough moments of joy and honesty that many young people, especially in their twenties, despite one’s sexuality, can relate with. At times it is sharp in finding the pulse when it comes to being a twentysomething or on the verge of becoming a “real adult” and feeling uncertain about the future. However, it is limited by important but unexplored strands like the protagonist’s disconnect with her highly traditional family.

Akhavan’s face is able to express a gamut of subtle emotions which makes her interesting to watch. It would have been easier to show obvious highs and lows, but the material is unafraid to traverse the middle ground—without turning into a bore. Shirin is often thrusted into embarrassing situations and it is almost always accompanied by shame. Because she is someone who doesn’t quite learn from her mistakes the first or second time, we come learn the pattern of the way she thinks to the point where we can eventually sense the lightbulb going off in her head when things go wrong.

And yet we root for her. Akhavan plays the character with a certain level of charm and effervescence. Even though the protagonist is at a crossroads in her life, there is more to her than confusion and being heartbroken from a breakup. She exudes an energy that is relatable. She acts and talks like a good friend instead of simply some character from a movie who is given superficial problems eventually to be solved cleanly after ninety minutes.

What works less effectively are Shirin’s encounters. It would have been fresh if we had a chance to get to know some of them. They are treated exactly as one night stands which takes away some of the intrigue in what they come to share. They are simply bodies instead of personalities which is a problem because we never really get a chance to understand why Shirin becomes attracted to them in the first place. When she is treated well or badly, there is little emotional impact. Then it is onto the next one.

I enjoyed the scenes when Shirin is around her family. The humor comes in the form of our heroine feeling like the black sheep especially when compared to her brother (Arian Moayed) who is a medical doctor, not to mention about to get married. Shirin neither has a career nor a special someone with whom she can potentially spend the rest of her life with. As expected, her parents are concerned where her future is headed. Although enjoyable, these scenes needed to have a more specific Iranian perspective in order to stand out from other Asian-American or Middle Eastern-American coming out stories out there.

“Appropriate Behavior” contains the elements necessary to become memorable but they are not put together in such a way that makes a truly compelling comedic story. There are times when the material relies on mainstream, superficial trivialities—silliness that one can expect from a television show. These cheapen an otherwise good material with unrealized potential.

Miss Meadows


Miss Meadows (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Karen Leigh Hopkins’ “Miss Meadows” is the kind of picture that leaves the audience completely baffled, perhaps even deeply frustrated, by the time it is over. Although obviously a character study of a woman with a fixed idea of what is right versus wrong and anything that challenges her beliefs drives her closer to the edge of madness, the material does not know whether it is a satirical dark comedy or a serious meditation of morality and of violence, how complex it is for one to have a code and one must live in a world that may not abide by such code.

What results is a misfire of a film project, one that comes across as embarrassed to dig deeply into human psychology and face the horrors of what is in front of us, the unconscious, and the subconscious. Notice how the title character, played Katie Holmes, is often reduced to behavior, immediately observable during the moment we meet her, even during personal and revealing moments. Although tears fall from the performer’s communicative eyes, we simply do not believe the character’s pain, suffering, and whatever she is going through. This is because the drama, even though it is willing to embrace hyperbole at times, is not rooted in any reality, let alone one that is relatable. There is a wall between the material and the audience.

The look of the picture is dull and uninviting—a miscalculation because some of the uneasy topics it brings up, like vigilante justice and mental health that goes unchecked, are already repellent. Perhaps a point can be made that the romance between Miss Meadows, a substitute grade school teacher, and the town’s sheriff (James Badge Dale) is meant to be inviting because the performers share solid chemistry, but the script fails to take the relationship anywhere remotely interesting. The most tension it commands involves the cop possibly having to arrest his new romantic interest because she is a suspect to the recent murders around the neighborhood.

I looked at Holmes in this film and realized that it must be a passion project for her. She attempts to enrich the skeletal material by emoting to the point of near-satire but there is barely anything to work with. I watched the character closely and wondered if perhaps, given a far richer material, it would have been more intriguing had Miss Meadows’ histrionics been downplayed, portrayed as someone who looks and acts “normal” when out in public but one who is revealed to be deeply disturbed the more we get to spend time with her. It certainly could have been a more haunting approach to paint the character this way. I appreciate, however, that Miss Meadows is not depicted as a clear-cut anti-heroine.

“Miss Meadows” offers misguided social commentary—and one that isn’t even interesting. Long stretches of the project are downright boring, so tedious and repetitive that one is challenged not to look at the clock or check how many minutes left to be endured. Quirky or flashy behavior does not make a movie and this work is a prime example.

Mom and Dad


Mom and Dad (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Brian Taylor’s would-be black comedy “Mom and Dad” inspires the viewer to walk away in the middle of it and never return. It is unfunny, not even mildly amusing, lacking the creativity and willingness to move the plot toward interesting directions, and it fails to function as a metaphor or an allegory of the complex relationship between parent and child, of one generation to another. All it provides is a mishmash of violent scenes that do not build up to anything substantial. It is one of the laziest films I’ve come across in a while.

It appears to be just another day in the suburbs as adults go to work and children go to school. As the day goes on, however, more and more parents are showing up to pick up their kids. While it is pragmatic to attribute the surge of panic to the violent goings-on shown by the news, it is revealed eventually that these parents intend to murder their own offsprings. The trigger appears to be a static noise emitted from television, cell phones, and various electronics. But there is no exact cause or reason behind the occurrence.

While the premise is curious, the screenplay never bothers to go beyond the expected elements of a horror template. Dark comedies require not only intelligence but an ingenuity designed to critique a subject behind images shown on screen; it must be willing to provide details so that the viewer comes to understand both what is at stake and why the story must be told in a particular way. Here, however, one gets the impression that the writer-director’s approach is to take a premise of a horror film, remove the juicy details of world-building and insightful character development, and pass it off as dark comedy. It is a massive miscalculation because the sub-genre almost never works as a skeletal piece.

Action sequences command no tension. Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair play the homicidal parents, but it appears they are hired simply to deliver crazy faces and intense yelling. When their characters chase the children (Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur) in and around the house, the camera is almost always placed toward the audience and so it is a challenge to appreciate, for example, the decreasing distance between predator and prey. Even the most basic horror pictures are aware that one ought to place the camera from a higher angle. A bit of distance from the central action allows us hold our breath in anticipation.

In addition, these chases are interrupted by pesky flashbacks that show either parent as a teenager or a parent sharing an intimate family moment with Carly or Josh. When not syrupy, they are laughably bad; in either case, the flashback interrupts the flow of an action scene. It is a technique so often used as a crutch to plug in the holes of a sinking screenplay. This observation is most applicable in this instance.

There is not one genuine human moment or interaction to be had in this most agonizingly dull film. It is exponentially more entertaining to sit through ninety minutes of Wile E. Coyote attempting to outsmart the Road Runner because the classic cartoon has more funny and surprising bits in thirty seconds than this movie has in its entire duration. If I were dared to choose between sitting through “Mom and Dad” again or breaking one of my fingers using a hammer, I would give the latter serious consideration.

Barking Dogs Never Bite


Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
★★ / ★★★★

While expressing to his friend over the telephone that he feels he might not cut it as a professor, Yoon-ju (Sung-jae Lee) becomes increasingly annoyed by a dog’s incessant barking. He lives in an apartment where dogs are not allowed and he is angry that tenants are unable to follow a simple rule. So, he takes the dog that he thinks is making all the ruckus, goes on the roof, and holds the animal out as to let it fall. He hesitates. It might get messy. With the dog in his arms, they go in the basement. Yoon-ju hangs it by the neck. It struggles. Will he go through it this time or will he come up with a more cruel way to kill it?

The first thing we are presented with is a notice that no animal is harmed in the making of the film. A dog struggling for oxygen because its airways are obstructed is so convincing, I flinched and was genuinely worried about the animal after having had a laughing fit due to the protagonist’s brazenness to take someone else’s pet as if it were a pen to be purloined. The picture is supposed to be comedic and it is at times executed with elegance.

Particularly strong is the first half as the camera follows Yoon-ju, so desperate to get tenure that he contemplates of bribing the dean, taking out his frustrations on the dogs. It is a classic case of a man feeling like he has no control over where his life is heading and so he attempts to gain control of what he believes to be of lesser value, not realizing, for instance, that a dog may be considered as a family member by its owner.

Underneath Yoon-ju’s ordinary and harmless appearance is an unrealized insanity. The longer we spend time with him, the clearer it becomes that he is a little off and perhaps dangerous. After all, if he can hurt an animal, what else is he capable of? We look warily at his pregnant and nagging wife.

It takes too much time for its two main strands to meet. Hyun-nam (Doona Bae) works as a bookkeeper adjacent to the apartment complex. She notices that, within a span of a week or so, more people are coming in to xerox flyers about missing dogs. The picture runs longer than it should because too many scenes are dedicated to Hyun-nam and Eun-sil (Ho-jung Kim). We watch them hang out but they neither say or do something remotely as interesting as Yoon-ju. When the camera is on them, the screenplay is stagnant.

There are a few more morbid humor sprinkled throughout. A character I found to be very funny is the janitor who likes to cook in the basement. Trust me when I say you would not want to try his stew. There is also a homeless man who lives down there. I was surprised that the writers, Joon-ho Bong, Ji-ho Song, and Derek Son Tae-woong, have found a way to tie this character neatly into the story. I did not expect him to be more than a joke that involves the janitor and his favorite food.

I am certain that “Flandersui age,” also known as “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” “A Higher Animal,” and “Dog of Flanders,” has a sense of humor that will not appeal to everybody, especially those who love dogs and do not want to see them in pain—even if it is simulated. Its main problem lies in the structure: by disallowing Hyun-nam to really get into the meat of investigation early on, a strong heroine, one that we know well, is not established. I found myself not caring if she would make it to the end.

Drinking Buddies


Drinking Buddies (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Though each of them is in a relationship, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) flirt at work occasionally to the point where it is worth asking if they feel something more than what they let on. Their counterparts, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), are not aware of the possible mutual attraction. When Chris invites Kate, Luke, and Jill to his family’s beach house, the flirtatious co-workers, especially when alcohol gets involved, may not be the only ones who might be open to temptation.

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, “Drinking Buddies” is an acquired taste because it immerses feelings and intentions in the mundane while still attempting to say something about the dynamics of romantic relationships. The camera is still as to capture the essence of the unsaid and we observe the four characters navigate through what they think they want versus what they really want. It has moments of genuine fascination.

The problem lies in the fragile line between realism and boredom. One can argue that many scenes, comprising of about half of the picture when taken together, is dispensable drivel. One will not necessarily be wrong. Admittedly, even though I wanted to know more about the characters and if any of them would be brave or foolish enough to cross the line, I found myself tuning out between silences. This should not be the case. If the material were more engaging, silences in relationship comedy-dramas allow the audience to think about what we feel toward a situation and the characters as well as assess what we might do differently if we were in our subjects’ shoes. Here, there is nothing much to the silences. It is often that they are employed to communicate an awkward but superficial situation.

Out of the four, Kate is the one I kept my eye on. In my opinion, she is an alcoholic—albeit a functional one—and so she has the tendency to imbibe when she is unhappy, when things do not go her way, and when she feels the pangs of loneliness. I found it interesting that sometimes a part of me wanted to think of her as the villain—the woman who gets in the way of a relatively happy relationship between Luke and Jill. On another hand, Luke flirts with her, too. He gives Kate a reason to be more attracted to him. In that way, I felt sorry for Kate. One can argue that she is given the most complexity.

The weakest link, regrettably, is Kendrick. She makes a decision not to play a character who radiates positivity and enthusiasm, but it some ways it backfires. Unlike her co-stars, who have the necessary angst to make us want to get to know their characters, her approach makes the character neither lovable nor detestable. Since Jill falls smack-dab in the middle, she becomes the least interesting. It does not help that she is so nice and agreeable. Whenever the spotlight is on Jill, I was bored. Maybe Luke has a reason for noticing Kate. At least there is an excitement to her.

The film is not for everyone but I understand what it has tried to accomplish. Movies of this type are challenging not only because the characters have to be interesting—which means the actors must be on point all the time—but also since the standard is very high. Louis Malle and Richard Linklater have made pictures that share the same bloodline and, quite frankly, “Drinking Buddies” pales by comparison.

Thoroughbreds


Thoroughbreds (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Cory Finley’s first feature film “Thoroughbreds” is a black comedy so bleak and straight-faced that it is likely to be mistaken for a thriller. After all, it involves a plotting of a murder by two former friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), recently reunited at the end of their final year of high school to study for college entrance exams. The latter is notorious as the girl who killed her family’s horse and she is now awaiting sentencing for animal cruelty. It is a daring project, which may work for some due to its occasional bouts of originality, but looking at it as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly its tale is not as fully realized as it should have been.

Nothing more can be asked of Taylor-Joy and Cooke because they play the characters with moment-to-moment intriguing vivacity. They manage to sell every line even though a handful of them sound like dialogue in a play. They are in command of how their characters express themselves, how they take up space, how they approach challenges or what they perceive to be challenges. The problem is, I think, the screenplay, the manner by which these characters lack a requisite arc in order for the story to come across genuine and for the audience to feel some sort of satisfaction when all is said and done. I felt no emotional connection to it, let alone emotional investment.

We are provided a template that Amanda is the unfeeling half, completely foreign to a range of feelings like happiness, sorrow, regret—some might say the very elements that separate humans from animals. Lily, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: too feeling, sensitive, consistently apologetic even during her moments of honesty. We are excited for how might the two will clash and complement one another during their conspiracy. I enjoyed that it tackles the question of how two people who lack empathy might relate with one another. Keeping their natures in mind, we dissect which emotions are real and which are convincing fabrications.

The heavy-handed dichotomy shoves the viewer in a state where one notices immediately things that do not quite belong. Despite the solid portrayals of Amanda and Lily, it doesn’t appear that they exist within a convincing environment. For instance, during intense exchanges between the girls, we hear a line or two that sounds like it should have been uttered in a play rather than a movie. It knocks us off-guard.

Although the scene recovers, the distraction is consequential enough for us to look away from the focal images and toward, for example, the presentation of a kitchen—not just how it is spotless, but also in how it appears to never have been used. Untouched utensils begin to look like props. Is the faucet even connected to a water line? The set looks like a set and we are reminded of it repeatedly. This is bothersome because the story unfolds indoors most of the time. There is an overall fragility and artificiality here that is alarming when one thing looks or sounds out of place—enough to take one out of a would-be intense experience.

I have always stated that dark comedy requires surgical precision. While an above average effort as a whole and some elements do work, “Thoroughbreds” is perhaps a kind of story that a filmmaker ought to make after he or she has made three or four strong films. Still, I admired writer-director Cory Finley for attempting to bring a challenging piece to life and so I look forward to his next project. I am convinced there is at least one great movie in him.