Category Archives: Black Comedy

Trance (2013) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.

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The Temp (1993) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 64.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Tom Holland
Stars: Timothy Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle, Faye Dunaway

Daft as a brush but forgivably sardonic, Tom Holland’s The Temp is a fast and loose thriller about an executive’s beautiful but sinister assistant whose recent arrival coincides with a number of accidents that move both her and her increasingly suspicious boss up the ladder. Timothy Hutton is the beleaguered exec, Laura Flynn Boyle, his self-appointed but apparently unstable cat’s paw while Faye Dunaway and Oliver Platt play their cut throat co-workers. With its unpredictable plot and outlandish progression, The Temp scores for its sheer uniqueness but with the writer-director of the quirky Fright Night pulling the strings, it’s also a riot of rather well disguised black comedy too. Contrasting dark tones of paranoia with over the top villainy, there’s barely a scene that won’t elicit a crooked smile. However, so unorthodox is its execution that the sarcasm is perhaps too well disguised. As often as not, the movie comes across as a tad unsure of itself and even erratic. In these moments, it can let the audience slip through its fingers despite the best efforts of Hutton and co. In the end, it all unravels rather resoundingly but, at the very least, it maintains its eccentricity.

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Heathers (1988) 3.28/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.7
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Michael Lehmann
Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty

“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.

Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.

Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.

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Miller’s Crossing (1990) 4.36/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Crime
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro

A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen brothers’ best film to date. Based loosely on an often forgotten film-noir, The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. The cast is loaded with heavy hitters with Albert Finney and J.E. Freeman (as the terrifying Eddie Dane) doing particularly well alongside Gabriel Byrne who is in the form of his career. The directing is textbook as the brothers create a flawless synthesis of Dennis Gassner’s production design, Roger Deacons’ cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s score, all of which are stunning.

Of course, the standout strength of Miller’s Crossing is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters and in typical noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else. The story is the usual rubix cube of crosses and double-crosses which we have come to expect from the Coens but the payoff is perhaps more sharply realised here than in any of their other movies. In fact, the manner in which it all comes together is so sublime that Miller’s Crossing isn’t just one of the Coen’s best films, it’s also one of the best gangster noirs – period!

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Into the Night (1985) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Duration: 115 mins
Director: John Landis
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Carmen Argenziano

A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!

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Miracle Mile (1988) 4.19/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.1
Genre: Thriller, Science Fiction
Duration: 87 mins
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Stars: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar

Obscure thriller from the vault of hidden gems that follows a love struck young musician on a frantic chase through LA after he gets an anonymous tipoff about an imminent nuclear attack. As he tracks down the girl of his dreams in order to evacuate her, he encounters one curious character after another under a series of hectic circumstances. Anthony Edwards is the everyman at the centre of things and he’s a ball of nervous energy and dorky charm. As he whisks us through a succession of bizarre episodes like wheeling his unconscious girlfriend in a trolley down the streets of nighttime LA, his unassuming presence keeps the madcap hijinks grounded in a kind of tilted reality. Steve De Jarnatt and DP Theo van de Sande are to be commended for bathing the entire aesthetic in a soft blue neon glow. LA looks every bit the fantasy world the story demands and it’s rather pleasing to behold too. Several other factors work towards a successful movie experience but none more effectively than Tangerine Dream’s intense electronic harmonies. It’s what we came to expect from them back in the day and like Sorcerer or Near Dark, they catch the movie in a current of unabated tension. There’s no doubting that Miracle Mile is a weird ride, kind of like John Landis’ Into the Night on mushrooms, but it’s also uniquely affecting and brimming with warped fun.

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Sexy Beast (2000) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.4
Genre: Crime
Duration: 89  mins
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Stars: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane

This British gangster movie stars the daddy of British geezer-actors Ray Winstone and a barely recognisable Ben Kingsley giving the most intimidating and ferocious performance this side of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Winstone plays the retired thief enjoying life with his wife in their Spanish villa. Kingsley plays the nutter sent to bring him back to London for one more job. Winstone has never been better while Kingsley simply burns a hole in the screen. This was Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut and it’s fair to say that there have been few more stunning. A deft blend of comedy and intimidation plus all the energy and innovation of a Tarantino or Scorsese at their most daring, the only question you’ll be left with is why he didn’t go on to become one of the industry’s hottest properties? Sexy Beast really does have it all, visionary directing, great cast, delicious script, beautifully shot, razor-sharp comedy, and a sensationally clever metaphorical double bluff just in case you weren’t already impressed.

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MASH (1970) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.4
Genre: Satire, War
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt

Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”

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Mr. Brooks (2007) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 120 mins
Director: Bruce A. Evans
Stars: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt

Okay, so the plot is way over the top but this quirky little movie about a wealthy serial killer (Kevin Costner) battling with his impulses to kill (personified in the form of alter ego William Hurt) is both an amusing black comedy and a very engaging thriller. Costner is as good as ever in the title role and his balancing of family man, business tycoon, tortured soul, and meticulous serial killer wasn’t an easy one to pull off particularly because of the story’s comedic artifice. But he actually nails it and makes for a charming lead who we root for throughout. Hurt is in giddy form as his twisted Id, a partner in crime, who nobody else can see or hear, while Demi Moore continues her recent revival with an equally charming turn as the detective on his trail. Where Mr. Brooks stalls is in the multitude of subplots it presents us with. Actually, four of them work quite effectively together but a fifth involving Moore’s pursuit of a second unrelated murderer is needless and distracting. But while it takes from the integrity of the story, writer director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Evans’ irreverent approach to the subject matter softens the blow. Simply put, Mr. Brooks is just about the fun we get from following its twisted plot and seeing three of Hollywood’s old hands plying their trade with the charm and savvy that many of their recent counterparts are missing.

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Alien: Resurrection (1997) 1.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 65.1
Genre: Action, Science Fiction
Duration: 109 mins
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman

200 years after she threw herself and the alien growing within her into a molten pit, military scientists genetically re-engineer Ripley and her parasite back to life in order to harvest the alien embryo. Fortunately for the surviving crew of the inevitably doomed ship, the mingling of the two species’ DNA left her with a few special abilities. First things first. Alien: Resurrection backtracks on the finality of Alien 3. It introduces an overtly comic-bookish plot and a host of caricatured personalities into a series of movies that were always defined by tight plots and layered characters. The genre defining set-pieces of Alien and Aliens and the admirable attempts of Alien 3 are replaced by contrived, blockbuster, slow-motion explodathons. The most interesting aspect to the story, writer Joss Whedon’s notion of Ripley’s ‘rebirth’, is completely misinterpreted by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The incisive dialogue of the first three instalments replete with its organic wit and charm is replaced by a one-liner infested script which plays to the sound bite. The lavish production design jars completely with the more elegantly simple aesthetic of the first three. Similarly, the sleek and dark naturalism of H.R. Giger’s creature design is ultimately replaced with a quasi-surrealist Cronenberg-esque body horror. And lastly, and perhaps most unforgivably, the steely fear and breathless tension that so defined Scott’s, Cameron’s, and Fincher’s movies is relinquished in favour of gore, gore, and more gore resulting in yet more outlandish events that feel so ‘alien’ to the series.

With all this in mind, if one is going to enjoy Alien: Resurrection, one must take it entirely on its own merits and treat it as a standalone feature. For those who can do that, there’s a fairly enjoyable action/sci-fi/horror romp lurking beneath the ashes of the great series. Sigourney Weaver is back in her darkest Ripley incarnation and she eats up the opportunity to play with the well worn role. The movie comes alive when she’s on the screen and she is the most important factor in its partial redemption. There are also a host of fantastic character actors (e.g., Brad Dourif, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman) playing the various secondary roles and caricatured as they are, the quality of the actors inhabiting them makes them fun to watch. The creatures look better than that which most sci-fi horror movies offer up and can even be enjoyed from the perspective of the franchise. As mentioned above, inappropriate as it may be to the Alien series, the production design and creature effects are still first rate and when combined with the motley gang of badasses led by the gnarly Ripley, the whole thing becomes quite entertaining.

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The Anderson Tapes (1971) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.2
Genre: Crime
Duration: 99mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam

Sidney Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery was for this inspired & subtly satirical story of surveillance, perception, & a recently paroled thief’s last big job. Connery is that thief and he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself in what must be one of his best roles. His character is proud and tough but generally good-hearted and you can’t help but weight in behind his optimism and certainty that he’s masterminded the perfect heist. The team he assembles are just as interesting with Christopher Walken’s electronics expert & Martin Balsam’s camped up merchandise valuer being the picks of the bunch.

The Anderson Tapes is imbued with that peculiar 1970’s paranoid vibe but there’s a much more light-hearted, satirical, and even comical sentiment insinuated into the narrative and in particular into those surveillance sequences which recurrently punctuate it. It makes for a highly original movie and one that has really been under-appreciated in terms of the subtle undertones Lumet and co. bring to the party.

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Repo Man (1984) 5/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.4
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 92 mins
Director: Alex Cox
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter

Alex Cox’s cult classic captures all the anarchy of the punk generation with the perfectly apt metaphor of a punk repo man. To explain the story would be impossible but also redundant as this film is an exercise in rebellion and counter-culture from the first scene to the backwards rolling credits. Emilo Estevez is excellent in the lead in what must be his best performance. A mixture of attitude and apathy, he’s the perfect counter-point to generations of hero archetypes. Naturally, the legendary Harry Dean Stanton steals every scene he’s involved with as the live by the code/die by the code repo man. It’s a performance of iconic stature and one that endeared himself to nearly every kid who grew up on this film. In truth, there’s not a single cast member who is not perfectly in tune with the spirit of the project and it’s that factor above all else which allows Repo Man to work as well as it does.

Alex Cox puts in the shift of his career by breathing a kind of structured life into the free-form chaos that is the plot and telling a cracking science fiction tale in the process. Eschewing the narrative conventions of story telling is easier said than done because, by their nature, conventions implicitly creep into our framing of everything. However, Cox manages to do just that by creating a film that glides forward under its own brisk momentum employing a series of dream like cuts between camera angles and scenes alike. The score and dialogue are as surreal as the visuals yet it all seems to make sense on an implicit level. The soundtrack is straight out of punk heaven as Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, and of course Iggy Pop balance out Steven Hufsteter and Tito Larriva’s serene score in rousing fashion. However, the crowning action in Repo Man comes as Cox borrows from the 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (and pre-dating Pulp Fiction), turning the trunk of the Chevy Malibu into the ultimate MacGuffin by inverting the conventions of that device in a reflexive brainstorm of epic proportions.

Repo Man is one hell of a muscular statement from all concerned and we’ve yet to see another film like it even though countless filmmakers have tried. It’s a testament to independent cinema and the punk mentality alike and has rightly become the anthem film for a generation of movie fans who love to see boundaries obliterated. It’s fitting therefore, that this film ends with what must be the greatest ascension scene of them all for it couldn’t have self-reflected its own meteoric rise to the top of cult cinema better.

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