Tag: comedy

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 (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.

Sex is Comedy

Sex is Comedy (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Because the lead actors (Grégoire Colin, Roxane Mesquida) of the film cannot stand to be around one another for long, the director, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), finds it a great struggle to shoot them. It does not help that the most important scene in the picture involves simulated sex; chemistry is required. The unnamed performers must be sensual, vulnerable and, most importantly, convincing. When the two share a passionate kiss, the feelings they invoke reflects that of a person practicing on a CPR dummy—detached, awkward, and cold.

I found “Sex is Comedy,” written and directed by Catherine Breillat, to be very funny even though many people, I imagine, may not necessarily find the humor in it. Although the plot is mostly about working with difficult actors, it also about Jeanne: how she is as a director when the camera is nearby, whether it is on or off, what she thinks is at stake if the project did not turn out as successfully as she had anticipated, her relationship with the cast and crew, and her passion for the job. The material gives us a chance to evaluate her as a director with her back against the wall.

In some ways, it is like hanging out on set. There is no music on the background to guide us what to feel or think. We hear footsteps and equipment being lugged around, we see people chatting on the side, and we feel the exhaustion emanating from just about everyone after a long day. Movies do not make themselves and I enjoyed that the material has enough insight to acknowledge the effort put into creating art.

The movie functions as an anatomy of a scene. The latter half mostly involves a bed, two cardboard walls, a pair of nervous actors, and the crew watching their every move. It is most entertaining when a take does not work because Jeanne is very hands-on. She is not afraid to jump on the bed, wrap her limbs around the leads, explain why certain body angles work better than others, and really push them to work. Actors get paid handsomely to bare not just their bodies when necessary but also—and more often—their souls, or at the very least their characters’ souls.

Viewers who enjoy honing in on faces and expressions, like myself, will find this picture a pleasure to sit through. For instance, a good amount of time is on the male lead’s reluctance, perhaps embarrassment as well, to wear a prosthetic penis during the all-important sex scene. It is decided without the actor’s consent that he will wear one because everybody knows he cannot stand his co-star. To the crew, it is an act of helping him out so that he has one less thing to worry about. It is not necessary that he be informed of their decision—after all, it is their job to save time and money—but it would have been nice so he feels included in the process. On the other hand, his response to the discovery is, in my eyes, unprofessional and childish. He constantly needs to be cajoled by the director to continue to do what he should be motivated to do in the first place.

This and similar scenes are worth thinking about because every character on screen acts like a real person. Sometimes people act difficult on purpose. Other times, they may not even be aware of it. A common thread is that there is always a reason. Since there is a marriage of two major elements, the stresses of the job and the clashing personalities, “Sex is Comedy” is an effective look at show business. Part of the challenge is to find the humor underneath the increasingly miserable characters.

I Love You Both

I Love You Both (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Sibling comedy “I Love You Both” is a great annoyance in the beginning because it does not seem to know what it is about. Instead of honing in on what it wishes to say about the special relationship between twins, the screenplay by Doug Archibald and Kristin Archibald, also the central protagonists in the story, gets mired in introducing colorful but stereotypical characters who serve merely as punchlines rather than believable people who have roles in shaping the inner circle of Donny and Krystal.

Until about halfway though, I thought it was about twenty-somethings who feel unhappy about where they are in life and so they attempt to fill the void by getting into a relationship—the twist being that the twins happen to fall for the same nice guy named Andy (Lucas Neff). This bizarre situation, however absurd in reality, is ripe with potentially funny, amusing, cliché moments. Certainly mainstream comedies would have milked it until the last fifteen minutes in which characters must then reconcile so audiences walk away feeling good about themselves. I enjoyed that the material is unafraid to meander, to touch upon unexpected rhythms, to allow a bit of soul-searching for its characters because Donny and Krystal are fully aware that certain lines should not be crossed.

Most effective moments involve one of the twins choosing to make a sacrifice, appropriate because the heart of the film is the love between siblings. One is more fragile than the other—and perhaps with good reason. Although the performers usually come up short in delivering subtleties required for dramatic, deeply personal moments, the camera dares to remain still and capture the hurt one feels for having to walk away from a situation even though he or she feels that exploring it might be a good avenue to experience. I admired that certain strands are left somewhat unresolved which is a lot like life.

Unfortunately, such highs are often followed by forceful attempts at humor—which usually involves co-workers who talk incessantly without much of value to say or do. These should have been left in the editing room because such scenes establish too much of a pattern. Comedies do not necessarily have to be funny every other scene so long as laughs, when front and center, are big and memorable. It gives the impression that the material is reluctant to allow the audience to absorb the various impacts or implications of certain characters’ decisions.

Directed by Doug Archibald, “I Love You Both” is a passable for a first-time filmmaker, but it is not a work for everyone. For instance, the characters are dominated by sadness and self-pity, even though they have no reason to be miserable most of the time, and so casual viewers may (understandably) ask, “What’s the point? Who cares about these people? What have they got to whine about?” Now that Archibald has got this story out of his system, I can’t help but wonder what else he’s got.