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Crime, Passion, Absurdity: More Darkly Twisted Comedies

No Spoilers

In my first blog on Darkly Twisted Comedies, I listed some of my favorite comedies, acknowledging that the selected films are often too dark and twisted to be considered amusing by some audiences. That original post was so popular, and generated so much interaction on readers’ parts, that I’ve written a follow-up listing more films in that genre. To my surprise, it wasn’t difficult to find more brilliantly acted, well-written, sometimes award-winning films that are considered “dark comedy.” Sometimes the absurd premise in these films delivers laughs, sometimes the easily recognizable human scenarios are amusing, and sometimes the compassionate view of humanity against its occasionally blatant stupidity is what does the trick. Here’s my next list of darkly twisted comedies, presented in no particular order unless it’s from least to most “dark,” without any Spoilers, so you can enjoy them for yourselves.

The Last Supper
(1995)

After an accident, a group of five idealistic, liberal graduate students (Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Courtney B Vance, Ron Eldard, Jonathan Penner) decide to make a difference in the world through action, not talk. Each week, they find someone to invite to Sunday night “dinner and discussion,” where the group attempts to change the guest’s social views.

Guests include Ron Perlman, Bill Paxton,

Jason Alexander, and Charles Durning, among others.

Things quickly go awry, spinning out of the students’ control, forcing each member to re-evaluate his own ethics and morality.

Staged like a play, where most of the action takes place in the confined quarters of the grad students’ dining room and kitchen, The Last Supper is an intriguing exploration of the ever popular “What would you do if…” scenario where you ponder your own hypothetical behavior given a chance to change the world.

The Last Supper is available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Starz or to DirecTV.

 ♦

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

On the day of Daniel’s (Matthew MacFadyen, below R) father’s funeral, everything is supposed to be sedate and dignified. Instead, from the moment the coffin arrives, everything goes topsy-turvy. Daniel desperately strives to maintain order and to stay in control, but everyone else seems to be going mad. From his brother Robert (Rupert Graves, L),

to his wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (the late Peter Vaughan),

from his father’s friend Peter (Peter Dinklage),

to his cousins (Daisy Donovan and Kris Marshal),

who accidentally drug the fiancé (Alan Tudyk, below, R),

they all try Daniel’s patience. Despite Daniel’s best attempts, chaos erupts, threatening to expose family rivalries and skeletons.

Witty and farcical, with nudity and a few instances of scatalogical humor, Death at a Funeral encapsulates some of the weirdest and most notorious moments possible at a dysfunctional family’s gathering. Death at a Funeral is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon.

The 2010 remake of Death at a Funeral, starring Zoë Saldana, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, James Marsden, and Peter Dinklage, is available free to DirecTV subscribers, but it’s not the version of the film I saw, so I cannot yet recommend it.

The Lobster
(2015)

In an unnamed place, in an unspecified future, humans — who are known mostly by their “defining characteristics,”  such as a limp, a lisp, or being short-sighted — are not permitted to be alone. If they are widowed or divorced, they must check into The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find another life partner. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it seems to find someone to love in this dystopian world since partners are required to be physically alike as well as emotionally compatible. If a Guest cannot find a partner within the time limit, s/he is transformed permanently into an animal released into the woods. Newly divorced David (Colin Farrell) wants to be a lobster if he fails, and is accompanied by his brother, who is now a dog.

In order to prolong their stay at The Hotel, Guests may earn additional days by going on a Hunt and killing Loners: people who refuse to find a mate and who hide in the Woods, vowing to forever remain single, isolated, and hidden from society.

David doesn’t know which life is worse: that of the Guests or the Loners, but he knows he’s lonely and doesn’t want to turn into a dog.

Narrated in VoiceOver by the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weiss), The Lobster  begins with a startling and absurd premise but manages to carry it successfully to its absurdly logical conclusion.

In this new twist on dystopian literature or films, the actors do a wonderful job behaving as if they have no emotions, sexual drives, or otherwise subversive feelings. The Lobster is available for rent for $4.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon and is free for DirecTV subscribers.

Fargo
(1996)

One of the Coen Brothers’ classic films, Fargo explores the world of crime when the criminals are inept, incompetent, and extremely dangerous. Car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy)

hires two bumblers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.

Jerry is über-confident that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the enormous ransom, which Jerry needs for an unspecified reason. It’s a lot of money, but despite his father-in-law’s devotion to his daughter, he isn’t about to let Jerry handle that much money. In any event, the kidnapping immediately goes wrong,

which gets a hugely pregnant local police-chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) involved. She’s desperately seeking criminals in an attempt to save the kidnapping victim’s life.

Buscemi shines as the violent, impulsive kidnapper. The Oscar-winning screenplay garnered an Academy Award for McDormand as the quirky but diligent law officer, and an Oscar nomination for Macy as the dull-witted and desperate Jerry. Fargo is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Showtime or DirecTV.

Fight Club
(1999)

When a dissatisfied, support-group-hopping, insomniac (Edward Norton), who’s the unnamed Narrator,

meets a charismatic, renegade soap-maker (Brad Pitt), the two form an unlikely bond. In their desperation to live a fully experienced life, they form an underground Fight Club, where the “first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.”

The fights bond the two men until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) — another support-group Crasher — resurfaces in the Narrator’s life.

In fact, Marla creates at least as much havoc as the ever expanding club, which begins to spread its exponentially increasing violence outside the metaphorical ring.

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, this is one of the few films that surpasses its source material in quality, if only because the (book) Narrator’s lines are spread out around the film’s principals. Brilliant and dangerously quirky, Fight Club is worth watching multiple times to get all the important details. Fight Club is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon or free if you subscribe to DirecTV.

American Beauty
(1999)

One of the darkest comedies ever made, Oscar-winning American Beauty explores the rot and ugliness beneath the seemingly perfect exteriors of an upper middle-class family and of everyone who comes into contact with its seriously flawed members. Head of household Lester (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance) is about to lose his job to down-sizing,

and is despised by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening, in her best role ever).

Both of them repulse their daughter Jane (Thora Birch),

especially after Lester gets a blatant crush on Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari, on bed).

When the new neighbor, boy-next-door drug-dealer Ricky (Wes Bentley), falls for Jane and makes her feel special for the first time in her life, her life becomes intolerable.

To make things worse, Lolita-like nymphet Angela begins to fall for Jane’s sexually frustrated father Lester, and is openly hostile to Jane’s quirky boyfriend Ricky, whom Angela considers a “psycho.” Yes, everything falls apart.

Stunning performances by all actors combined with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Alan Ball take this dark comedy from its amusing beginnings to a much deeper exploration of beauty, happiness, and the meaning of life itself. American Beauty is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon, for rent for $3.99 for DirecTV  subscribers, or free if you’re a subscriber to SundanceTV.

Though some of the films contain violence or explicit language, I don’t find graphic or sexual violence humorous, so none contains that. All of the films should be considered for mature audiences, however.

And, as always, if you have any films you’d like to suggest for future lists, I’d love to hear from you (and to see the films).

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Crime, Passion, Ambition, Stupidity:
Darkly Twisted Comedies

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Verdict on Anna-K, the Film

Last night, for many reasons — including living in an isolated area where the nearest movie houses are about 2 hours away — I saw the newest film version of Anna Karenina on HBO — starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen, among others — and I have to say that the film is beyond bad, and guilty of breaking all the rules of good film-making.

Anna Karenina,  by Leo Tolstoy, is an epic Russian novel with two complete, intertwined stories. The first involves Levin and Kitty, who eventually become the “ideal” of married love and fidelity, with a strong emphasis on a rejection of the worldly life of the city and the aristocracy for a “return” to the simpler life of the peasantry (which is a lie, actually, since Levin and Kitty are both wealthy, and own the country estate and the peasants/serfs where, like Marie Antionette, they “play” at being simple folk). Their story is interwoven and contrasted throughout with that of Anna, who is married to the bureaucrat Karenin but who falls in love and has an adulterous affair with Count Vronsky (from whom Kitty had, at first, expected a proposal, which is how the two separate storylines begin, but who is “jilted” after Vronsky meets Anna, as the two fall in love on sight).

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy makes it clear that he disapproves of Vronsky and Anna, even comparing their first sexual encounter to “murder” and “punishing” Anna for her adultery by (1) making her lose her son, (2) taking away her social status, (3) making her a drug addict, (4) making her unreasonably, virtually insanely jealous of Vronsky’s attentions to anyone else, and, finally, (5) making her commit suicide. Meanwhile, Kitty & Levin — the couple Tolstoy approves of — have a rocky start when she first thinks she loves Vronsky, but then, realizing her mistake and marrying Levin, the two live happily ever after, in harmony with each other, the land (which Levin owns), the peasants (who are Levin’s serfs), and even God.

There have been countless film and television adaptations of Anna Karenina, and most have had their flaws. Usually, the actors playing Anna and her husband Karenin are better than the actor playing Vronsky, so the supposed “chemistry” between Vronsky and Anna simply doesn’t come across in the films. This newest version, however, commits so many crimes against good film-making and against making good books into films that this Court finds it Guilty of several offenses.

Guilty of Crimes Against Turning a Good Book into a Bad Film

  • If you haven’t read the novel Anna Karenina, you’ll have no idea who the characters in the film are, or what their relationships to each other are. That makes it difficult to figure out who’s who, and why they’re even in the film in the first place.
  • If you haven’t read the novel several times, you’ll have no idea of what’s happening in the movie: there’s virtually no plot in this version of the film; it’s more like a trailer that’s 2 hours long. It might be considered visually stunning by some, but it makes no sense whatsoever.
  • All the intensive character development in the novel is missing in the film, so the characters’ actions make little sense — even if you have read the book.

Guilty on all three counts of Turning a Good Book into a Bad Film by making it necessary to have read the entire novel, perhaps several times, in  order to know who all the characters are, what their relationships are, and what, exactly, the plot of the whole thing is.

Guilty of Crimes Against Making Good Film


Everything in the entire movie is set up as if it’s in a playhouse, even the infamous horse-race where Karenin first learns for a fact that his wife is, indeed, unfaithful.

A horse-race on a stage? By this time in the movie, I was beginning to think it was going to happen, but I still started laughing when I saw it. The Horse-Race Scene, on, of all things, a stage in a theater.

  • The costumes are more important that the character development, plot, and dialogue. Again, intentionally. Though I didn’t know what was wrong with the costumes till I found the video about Creating the Stunning Costumes for Anna Karenina, the designer mixed the clothing styles of 1873 Russian aristocracy with those of the 1950s (from which country, I have no idea). (To see the video, which has the same URL as most of the others, you have to go to the main site, then click on the title about the costumes.) While I watched the movie, however, the costumes kept bothering me, calling unnecessary attention to themselves rather than to defining the characters, and making me wonder what was wrong with the costumes. I found out when I was researching the film. (And, yes, I know the Costumes won an Oscar.) As Keira Knightley states in the featurette: “The rules of a period film have been completely broken, and that goes for the costumes as well.”  Pity, actually.
  • The audience laughs when the scenes are not supposed to be funny. I was actually glad that I didn’t see this film in the theater because the unintentional laughter of the audience would have made me miss whatever little dialogue there was, as in the dancing scenes, where everyone’s moving his arms as if they’re snakes. One of the most notoriously ludicrous dancing scenes Hollywood has actually financed.

Guilty on all Three Counts of Making a Bad Film by Making Scenery, Stage-Setting, & Costumes more important that Plot, Dialogue, and Character Development; and by Making the Film Unintentionally Ludicrous and Funny.

Other Crimes Against Making Good Films
I’m not even going to mention wasting the talented Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen by giving them virtually no screen-time (especially the last two). The three are in the film, oh, let’s say, 25 minutes of the entire two hours. But I may be exaggerating a bit: they may not be on-screen that long; I didn’t think I’d need a stop-watch while watching this long-anticipated remake of one of my favorite novels.

I’m not going to discuss the fact that a casting director has, once again, put all the major acting talent in the roles of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her brother (a minor role in the novel and the film) Stiva [Oblonsky], and put a nondescript, ineffectual actor in the role of Vronsky, once again resulting in absolutely no chemistry between the “dashing, wealthy, exciting, cavalry officer” and the married, faithful, devoted Anna, the man for whom Anna Karenina risks her entire life, family, social position, reputation, etc. No chemistry, folks. Not even a spark. You could tell Keira was really trying, but even she couldn’t pull it off. Fizzle. Even in the supposedly erotic scenes.

And I’m not going to talk about all the times when every character in the scene freezes — staying perfectly motionless for extended periods of time — while one or two of the principal players dances, or walks, or looks at something, or says a few words that often make no sense if you haven’t read the book (see first set of Crimes, above; and because someone might ask me what I’m talking about here, I’ll use the line someone says when Anna’s husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky are in the same place together: “That’s one too many Alexeys for me.” If you haven’t read the novel, you wouldn’t know that both men have the first name Alexey, since each is usually referred to, in both book and film, by their last names — Karenin and Vronsky — so that it’s clear who’s being discussed.)

And the last thing I’m not going to mention is the fact that the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, an award-winning playwright & screenwriter, who knows everything there is about plays and playwriting (he’s a Shakespeare scholar as well as the author of the original play & film adaptation Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and of the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love). Tom Stoppard, either on his own or with the director’s wishes/approval, set the entire movie up as if it were on a stage — even a horse race — where the scenery literally moves and the characters are suddenly walking into another place and time.

I was so looking forward to this remake of this film. I adore the principal actors mentioned above, and believed that, with their combined talents, the film was going to rake in the Oscars.

For Best Unintentional Comedy.

Maybe.

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