Tag: dark 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.

Metropolitan


Metropolitan (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While three friends are on their way to a party, Nick (Chris Eigeman) mistakes Tom (Edward Clements), standing next to a taxi, as one of the guests and insists that they all share a transport. Nick takes an immediate liking to Tom because something about him feels exciting. But Tom is not like Nick and his boarding school friends whose families live in New York City’s Upper West Side. Although he is dressed in a fancy suit, a rental, his parents had gotten a divorce and his father took all the money with him, leaving him and his mother on a budget. As a result of the divorce, he feels almost repulsed by the upper-class social scene. Gradually, however, he is drawn to it.

“Metropolitan,” written, directed, and produced by Whit Stillman, is a savagely funny portrait of very educated, wealthy, and self-absorbed young people. It is admirable that although the material pokes fun of them, it is apparent that the writer-director holds a level of affection for his subjects. Instead of treating them as mere targets of ridicule in order to construct a satirical comedy of manners, he gives them depth during unexpected moments even if it seems too late into the picture for us to revise our opinion of a person.

The first part has an air of predictability in the way Tom is seduced into the world urban haute bourgeoisie. Tom meets a person, they converse, they agree or challenge one another, and a tenuous mutual respect is established. It feels formulaic but the film does not stay rooted in this technique for long. As the protagonist grows comfortable with the types of personalities within the group, the material veers away from Tom to give us good reasons why the outsider wants to know more about his newfound friends. Some of them are as insufferable as our first impression but at least an attempt is made for us to be able to give a fair evaluation. But even the more unlikeable ones have the ability to surprise.

The college students discuss a pool of subjects, from social mobility and Marxism to literature and rules of courtship. There are subtle but important distinctions between conversations that occur as a group versus one-one-one. In groups, the intellect is at the forefront which consistently lead to fiery disagreements and name calling. When words are exchanged between two people, although there may be dissent toward views being expressed, the speaker and listener take a more sensitive approach. There is less competition; the mentality of one having to be right therefore the other having to be wrong is downplayed in order to make room for connections that feel true. There is an understanding that what these people have in common is more than money or habitat. They are drawn to one another because they challenge each other’s perspectives and expectations.

It is easy to dislike the subjects because they command jargon that many might find esoteric or pretentious. Admittedly, at times I was vexed with their unwillingness to let go of the pleasantries and simply express unveiled anger or frustration. But perhaps that is the point. These young men and women are so intelligent when it comes to books and ideas but they do not seem to have an emotional compass or a semblance of common sense. It made some me think of friends who are ace on paper but sadly do not have the skills necessary to function or flourish outside of academia.

If there is a great reminder in “Metropolitan,” it is that there is ignorance in all of us. It does not matter if one barely graduated high school or if one achieves the highest education in the most prestigious university. Some are just better at hiding it than others.

Parents


Parents (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael (Bryan Madorsky) and his family (Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt) have recently moved to the suburbs: a new house, a new school, and a new perspective concerning what his parents put on the dinner table. Michael fears his father greatly; it is better not to make eye contact unless it is demanded. While Michael finds his mother tolerable, he also keeps her at arm’s length. Every night, the three of them eat together like most model families in the 1950s. Without fail, Michael pretends to be full because he suspects that the nicely garnished meat that sits on the plate is human flesh.

“Parents,” written by Christopher Hawthorne, is an uncompromisingly bleak dark comedy that I had trouble digesting despite my admiration for its daring decision to thrust a kid into increasingly dangerous situations. But what differentiates the film from being a simple-minded exploitation picture is that it allows us to be with the little guy every step of the way. For instance, since Michael is in a constant state of fear, his subconscious forces him to experience all sorts of vivid nightmares. The camera is always behind or next to him as we see a hand sticking out of garbage disposal, blood seeping out of the refrigerator, and the bed sinking in an ocean of blood.

Madorsky does a wonderful job not just in looking absolutely terrified, especially when the father gives him a suspicious look, but also in reeling in our greatest sympathies. His character is a child who believes that there is no one he can turn to. After sitting through nicely-paced spying that occasionally ends in almost getting caught, we want to see him escape his potentially cannibalistic parents by exposing their extracurricular activities—if they are, in fact, murderers and cannibals.

When Michael is not at home, he is at school, bonding with a girl (London Juno) who is also relatively new. Naturally, the duo eventually make grim discoveries that may or may not only reside in their heads. Bob Balaban, the director, is fastidious in building suspenseful scenes. Because of the uneven beats between action and reaction, images normally considered as clichés end up providing just the right amount of impact.

Moreover, there is variation in the outcomes of Michael’s investigations. Just when we believe he is safe, he gets caught at the final teeth-chattering second. At times, though, when we are convinced that it is game over for the boy, he is saved by a noise or some other unforeseen element without coming off as cheap.

However, I wished that the picture had dedicated more scenes between Michael and Millie Dew (Sandy Dennis), the school psychologist. Their very limited interactions are fascinating. One of the best scenes involves Millie showing Michael a picture and the former asked the latter what he thinks of it. The kid is struck by horror and which implies that something terribly wrong is happening in the photo. In fact, the picture is simply showing two parents tucking in their child for bed.

“Parents,” almost Lynchian in its confident surrealism and irony, is a forgotten gem but it does not deserve to remain that way. It may be hard to swallow at times due to some of the questions it dares to ask about the darkest corners of child psychology but it is worth the uncomfortable viewing.

Snowman’s Land


Snowman’s Land (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Walter (Jürgen Rißmann) just killed the wrong man and his boss (Detlef Bothe) isn’t happy. Mistakes have a cost especially in their business of killing wives and overdue debtors, but Harry overlooks Walter’s indiscretion just this one time. Not knowing what to do with his free time, Walter decides to take on a job recommended by François (Luc Feit). It involves waiting for Berger (Reiner Schöne), a mob boss, to arrive in his house–which looks like a mansion fused with a warehouse–located in the middle of the forest up in the mountains. When Berger’s wife, Sibylle (Eva-Katrin Hermann) dies accidentally, however, Walter and his friend Micky (Thomas Wodianka) decide to hide the corpse.

In theory, Thomasz Thomson’s “Snowman’s Land” should have worked given that it has all the ingredients in creating a dark comedy about criminals who think they’re too smart for their lies to catch up to them. It is standard in that Walter embodies the more serious side of the duo while Micky is the more impetuous half who has the tendency to attract trouble, but the actors have enough charm to keep me mildly interested. And yet charm proves to be insufficient when the understated jokes are stretched too thin and dispersed so far apart that waiting for the next supposedly funny bit starts to feel like a hassle.

The frozen forest environment and the mobster’s massive home become the most interesting parts of the movie. I enjoyed looking at the way snow covers the pine trees with a certain gentleness and watching characters struggle get from one point to another because the snow is so thick. Micky can’t seem to help but instigate while Walter attempts to maintain his cool. When the material plays upon the essences of their personalities, there is a real spark in their exchanges that doesn’t die out quickly during extended silences.

The most joyous part of the film is when Walter and Micky, right after Sibylle drives away to attend a wild party (to say the least), run all over the compound and explore rooms that they aren’t even supposed to be in. That scene shows the kid inside them–that even though they may consider themselves as tough guys, no one is too old to have fun doing something that one isn’t supposed to be doing. Even though they are criminals, they are relatable in that moment. When they’re surprised at what they had seen, we are surprised, too. There proves to be a reason why certain areas are prohibited.

However, the second half of the film loses its backbone as it juggles too many strands at once. While Berger has an intimidating presence and I wanted to know more about him, the twists and turns in the story eventually begin to feel like a gimmick. The screenplay wishes to touch upon Kazik (Waléra Kanischtscheff), Berger’s right-hand man, Berger’s multimillion dollar goal, and the shady characters around town simultaneously that much of the humor gets lost somewhere in between.

“Snowman’s Land” could have gone in many directions but it decides to go nowhere. During its most frustrating moments when the characters are allowed to just sit around instead of embracing the psychological challenges they might experience from extended isolation, I wondered how exciting it would have been if the Coen brothers, Martin McDonagh, or Aaron Katz were at the helm.

The Young Poisoner’s Handbook


The Young Poisoner’s Handbook (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

Graham (Hugh O’Conor) has a fascination for chemistry because understanding the subject reveals every day mysteries that most people take for granted. But his passion is of no value in his family. He lives with his father (Roger Lloyd-Pack), stepmother (Ruth Sheen), and sister (Charlotte Coleman), all of whom consider Graham a pest who messes around with their belongings. In order to become a great scientist, Graham figures he needs an experiment that will set him apart from the rest. This plan involves introducing poison to the greatest number of people in a public place–a mass murder. But first, he needs a guinea pig: his stepmother.

“The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross, deals with its grim subject with confident joviality. What I loved about it is its consistency in challenging us to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, at the many afflictions that Graham causes to everyone around him yet keeping in mind that there is a sadness and tragedy in his genius.

His first poison of choice is antimony sulfide. It is a good poison because its symptoms are typical. Doctors often mistake its effects for treatable intestinal disorders so they assure the sick persons’ families that their loved ones’ condition is nothing to worry about. Graham’s stepmother is far from pleasant with her stepson so when she is made to suffer through vomiting and having irritable bowel syndrome, the scenes are very amusing. It does not come off cruel because the material focuses on what makes the young scientist tick through his actions, its repercussions, and his responses; his delusions of grandeur and intellectual superiority; and what he is willing to do or sacrifice in order to achieve his goals.

Graham may be lacking in conscience but no can deny that he is exemplary in observing, taking notes, and noticing trends. As he observes others, we observe him. Those beady eyes command an electric alacrity when he notices that his experiment is working. Meanwhile, our eyes widen from the increasingly horrific implications of his experiments.

Then Graham moves on to using thallium, commonly used to kill insects and rats. It is an even better poison than antimony sulfide because its effects vary depending on the person. But one thing people infected with thallium have in common is eventual alopecia. In charge of delivering medicine to his unsuspecting stepmother, he sprinkles just enough to push her into a catatonic state. Despite the dark comedy, we are aware of his nature.

The next third of the film introduces the question of whether Graham, after several tests indicates that he is a psychotic, can be rehabilitated. During his time in the mental hospital, he manipulates people to gain freedom. Interestingly, for him, freedom does not necessarily mean a chance to start over like most people who genuinely feel bad about the things they have done. Graham has an obsession and he needs to scratch an itch. His purpose is not to reconnect, make amends, or attempt to lead a normal life. In his words, he has to make thallium “tasteless, orderless, and untraceable.”

Directed by Benjamin Ross, “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” is macabre, clever, twisted, some would label it “sick,” and based on a true story. And I watched spellbound.

Life During Wartime


Life During Wartime (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) were forced to reevaluate their relationship when their waitress recognized Allen’s voice as the pervert who harassed her some time ago. This came as a complete shock to Joy because she would never have pegged her husband for a sexual deviant. Meanwhile, Trish (Allison Janney) and Harvey (Michael Lerner) seemed to forge a genuine relationship even though he was far from her type. To Trish, Harvey symbolized a chance to finally become normal. After being married to a child molester (Ciarán Hinds), Harvey was ideal in comparison. Could Trish’ happiness last? Written and directed by Todd Solondz, “Life During Wartime,” a sequel to Solondz’ impressive and darkly comic “Happiness,” was a disappointment because each key event relied on shock value instead of genuine substance that we could roll around in and feel bad later on for enjoying it too much. For instance, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish’ son, asked his mother what male pedophiles did to other boys. Wanting to protect her son from the grizzly details, she claimed that when any man touched a boy, even if it was an accidental touch on the shoulder, that was called rape and he should seek help by screaming to the top of his lungs. That moment was funny. But what wasn’t so amusing was the fact that Timmy’s curiosity wasn’t developed in a meaningful way. A question was posed and answered but rarely brought up again even in a different form. The film’s power largely depended on recurring themes and character motivations–some were sad, others were twisted, while a select few felt very dirty and wrong. Since each scene felt more like a weekly comic strip, there was no build-up in momentum and the overall work fell flat, a superficial rumination on an edgier, darker predecessor. After the punchline had been delivered, it was onto the next scene with a new supposedly shocking material. The picture spent a lot of time with Joy having conversations with her dead ex-boyfriend (Paul Reubens) but not enough time with her sister named Helen (Ally Sheedy). The former was meandering, typical, and lacking in tension while the latter was fascinating because Helen was full of ugly self-loathing. Helen felt like she couldn’t keep up, in her words, with “the enormity of [her] success.” She was vile to others because, deep down, she thought she was better than everyone else just because she was a screenwriter. When the material focused on the three sisters, Joy, Trish, and Helen, the movie was effortlessly funny. Trish, at first glance, seemed the most normal but I found that, over time, Joy was the lucky one. Unlike Trish and Helen, Joy didn’t feel the need to steer conversations toward whatever was happening in her life just so that she would be reminded that her existence held meaning. Most importantly, “Life During Wartime” failed to stand on its own. The drama depended too much on the events that occurred in its predecessor. If the director felt the need to comment on what happened to the characters post-“Happiness,” he should have just opted for a rerelease with extended special features.