Tag Archives: dark comedy

Judy & Punch

If your memory needs refreshing, Punch and Judy are traditional puppets who have been entertaining crowds in the UK and beyond for over 400 years. They started out as marionettes in Italy; Punch was derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello and eventually just Punch when the show made the jump over to Great Britain, and the marionettes became hand puppets out of convenience or laziness or both.The show costarred Mr. Punch’s wife, Judy, and a cast of rotating characters. Much like a soap opera, the story wasn’t fixed, but it always featured some key elements: their baby, mishandled by Punch, a hungry crocodile, an officious policeman, a prop string of sausages, a generic hangman named Jack Ketch. The show was a series of scenes in which various foes come for Punch, but each is eventually victim to his slapstick (note: though Mr. Punch does an awful lot of clowning around, his slapstick is indeed a large stick used for slapping people, often to death). Mr. Punch will then utter his famous catchphrase “That’s the way to do it!” which is how the expression “pleased as punch” was derived – from his sense of gleeful self-satisfaction. Despite the numerous murders, a Punch and Judy show is a comedy, often provoking shocked laughter.

Cut to 2020 when writer-director Mirrah Foulkes re-imagines the show’s origin story in her own sordid tale, called Judy & Punch. In the tiny 17th century English village of Seaside (actually nowhere near the sea), Punch and Judy entertain the villagers with their weekly puppet show. The violent show is right at home among these people, who satisfy their bloodlust with public “stoning days” where their anarchic mob rule interprets random coincidences as witchcraft, condemning their neighbours to die – unless of course the crime is though to be particularly heinous, wherein they might just be hanged immediately.

At home, Punch (Damon Herriman) is a drunk and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) his hard-working and long-suffering wife. One day while she makes a quick trip to market, Punch accidentally kill their baby during a drinking binge. Judy has been gone but an hour and is understandably heart broken to find her baby murdered but her sobs only enrage Punch, who then makes her a victim of his slapstick. He disposes of both bodies.

Allow me to interrupt myself here to say this: when the baby dies, it is under circumstances so perfectly orchestrated, so perfectly designed and directed that I uttered a single “Ha!,” followed by a horrified silence as I processed that the baby is in fact dead. If you were not familiar with the particular and very specific brand of dark humour found in a traditional Punch and Judy show, you might think that this movie has a serious problem with tone. But understanding the history means you cannot fail to admire Foulkes’ ability to find what has to be the very slimmest of veins wherein a baby’s death can be both funny and cruel, and executing it to perfection.

In the film, Judy narrowly survives the beating, unbeknownst to Punch, and hides among a band of outcast heretics while she heals. Together they plot revenge not just on Punch but indeed on the whole town who have so successfully driven out or eliminated anyone with a difference. In this way, Foulkes is able to explore the kind of atmosphere where such a show could have proliferated. Punch is undoubtedly a bad man. Each show usually includes a scene wherein Punch lays out the bodies of each and every one of his victims for the audience to count, yet they still cheer when he bests the hangman, or indeed even the devil himself. These were cruel times fueled by fear: if not them, then us.

Mia Wasikowska delivers a strong performance as a woman with talent, brains, and resources, yet so few options that she must hide in the forest for fear that her survival may be interpreted as witchcraft. Herriman pulls off an even harder feat as damned Mr. Punch: a fool, a predator, a charmer, a pretender. The thing about puppets is that whether dancing with their wives or bludgeoning them, their expressions never change. Perhaps a painted-on grin helped the audience swallow his violent attacks. But our Mr. Punch is a man, a puppeteer. Herriman has to be believable as both the bumbling buffoon chasing after a dog who’s stolen his sausages, and mere moments later, a father who has not only charbroiled his own baby, but pinned her murder on elderly innocents. And he is!

I am reminded of a time back in 2016 when I reviewed a “black comedy” that I felt was SO black it merited a whole new category, so I invented the Vantablack comedy, Vantablack being in fact a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, in honour of Judy & Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’ audacious directorial debut.

Judy & Punch is available digitally on Apple/iTunes as well as VOD services.

 

TIFF 2017: Bingo! I Got Bingo!, Part 2

Catching 3 films by female directors is easy. The TIFF lineup this and every year has lots of interesting films to choose from, many of them directed by women. Getting full TIFF Bingo isn’t so easy.

I have stress dreams about the Midnight Madness ball and avoid it like it’s a not deep-fried vegetable so that’s out. And, while Battle of the Sexes had its moments, I can’t honestly say that I thought “Now this I’ve got to try”.

But I did…

Thank a Volunteer

Mom and Dad– The festival and the city that hosts it can be a little overwhelming at first. Even though I feel like an expert by the end of my stay, every year I’m feeling a little disoriented when I first get into town. So I’ve just checked into my hotel, it’s 11:40 at night, and I’ve got a Midnight Madness screening of Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad in 20 minutes. I’m running around trying to find Ryerson theater and I’m getting stressed out imagining all the ways that I could humiliate myself trying to volley a beach ball in a crowded theater. Luckily, a friendly orange shirt is never far away and I was very thankful to the volunteers who helped me find where to line up. I never miss a chance to thank a volunteer and I applaud for them every time the TIFF commercial prompts us to.

So, anyway, Mom and Dad. Taylor (Crank, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengence) seems to be just begging us to make this a cult classic. An unexplained virus suddenly hits suburbia in the middle of the school day that infects parents with an uncontrollable urge to violently murder their offspring. Poor Carly (13 Reasons Why’s Anne Winters) and Josh Ryan (Transparent’s Zackary Arthur) are forced to fend for themselves against their now-deranged parents played by Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair.

Mom and Dad is bananas. Almost every aspect of the film- from the basic concept down to the music and over-caffeinated editing- seems driven by the same manic energy that fuels Cage’s typically unhinged performance. The actor, who in the eyes of the enthusiastic Midnight Madness crowd may as well have been John Lennon, already starts overacting long before the virus starts making everyone crazy. He outCages himself in this movie and- while it would be a stretch to call it a good performance- it feels like the right performance for this movie. But it’s Blair, surprisingly, who somehow finds a way to keep this runaway train from going off the rails. From the start, we can tell that her character is a good mom. She loves her kids but she’s exhausted and taken for granted. She’s the only believable character in the whole thing and her presence brings Mom and Dad back to earth. It’s through her that we start to sense that the virus is tapping into an existential crisis that was already in place before the infection.

To call Mom and Dad good would be ridiculous but it’s not really trying to be. It just wants to be fun and, for the most part, it is. It’s often funny, even coming dangerously close to smart, especially when it’s in terrible taste.

Phone Dies

I got some great photos this year, many of which you can see if you follow us on Twitter. I like sitting in the front row so I was able to get some shots of Nicolas Cage, Alicia Vikander, Alexander Payne, and Darren Aronofsky that I’m really happy with. But you won’t see a photo of Ellen Page (who, if I’m not mistaken, counts as a superhero out of spandex) because my phone died.

The Cured– So I did manage to get a couple of pictures of Ellen Page during the Q&A for The Cured. They’re just not tweetable because my phone didn’t have enough juice left for the flash to work. So it’s not a great picture. It’s a shame because I love her.

And, yes, fortunately for my TIFF Bingo card, my phone officially died on my way back to my hotel.

On to The Cured. This debut feature from Irish director David Freyne finds yet another way to breathe new life into a genre that seems to never run out of ways to reinvent itself: the zombie movie. Once this version of the zombie apocalypse has died down, two thirds of the “infected’ have been successfully cured and are slowly being reintegrated into society. Ex-zombies don’t have it easy though. They still have painful memories of the suffering that they inflicted and most people still don’t trust them.

Senan (Sam Keeley) has just been released from a treatment facility and is taken in by his brother’s wife Abbie (Page) who has been widowed by the outbreak. When he falls in with a militant group of zombie rights activists, Senan struggles to find a balance between his desire to fit in and atone for his crimes and his instinct to stand up for his fellow cured.

To Freyne, his film is really about how we treat each other in today’s mixed up world. It’s a serious movie with serious themes that somehow finds time to deliver the goods when it comes to zombie scares. Freyne’s direction is confident and precise, more so than almost any other movie I saw at the festival this year.

So there you have it. I wore out my phone battery, saw 3 films by female directors, thanked every volunteer that I spoke to, and even managed to see some good movies while I was at it. By now, experienced Bingo players have probably already spotted my path to victory but please feel free to stay tuned for more details.

 

SXSW: Prevenge

Alice Lowe has stumbled upon a new kind of body horror: that of a heavily pregnant woman. Ruth is on a murder spree, guided by the wee voice in her womb who just happens to be a misanthropic areshole. The little voice chimes in, pointing out the bad people, or the disappointing people, or the less than desirable people, and encouraging mom to kill, kill, kill. Apparently there’s blood lust in umbilical cords these days!

Alice Lowe is my hero. She wrote (and starred in) Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, appeared in Adult MV5BN2EzNTdlOGEtNWViZC00MmE5LWFiNzgtOTIzODNlMjBjM2M2L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_Life Skills and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and lent her voice to Locke, among a flurry of other activity, including fucking. That’s crude, but the end result is that she found herself pregnant, and instead of taking maternity leave like a sane person, she wrote and directed herself, at 7.5 months pregnant, in this film about a homicidal fetus. And it’s her first feature as director!

Ryan Reynolds became murderous when his cat Mr. Whiskers told him to, but Alice Lowe has done him one better. Prevenge is blackly comic and wryly British, if I may say so. Ruth’s unborn baby seems to be holding the world accountable for her absent father, slyly suggesting to her mother that certain someones might be deserving of a gory end. Ruth seems to indulge baby’s every whim but does struggle with her conscience. Is this a new kind of pre-partum, um, madness? And what the heck is going to happen when the baby comes out? Yikes!

Shudder, “Home of Horror” hosted a screening in NYC where all pregnant women were admitted free. I suppose those who weren’t superstitious attended, and hopefully saw the humour in a pregnant lady killing for two. If that’s something you might be into, the good word is that Prevenge is streaming on Shudder right this very minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW: Us And Them

Danny is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. He’s not as eloquent as Howard Beale, but he IS galvanized into action. Angry about the iniquities between the haves and the have nots, Danny decides to kick start a revolution by live-streaming an attack on a member of the 1%.

Danny (Jack Roth, son of Tim) picks Conrad (Tim Bentinck) as his target, a wealthy banker he holds hostage alongside his wife and daughter in their McMansion. Danny and his pals hope to inspire\terrify the elite into making change, forcing Conrad to choose between his wife and daughter. Whether or not this is a good idea, it certainly doesn’t go as planned. Danny’s co-conspirators are a little less “big picture” than he’d hoped, and Conrad refuses to play the game. The anger and frustration are palpable from both sides, raw with hard edges, everyone’s values questionable.

The truth is, Danny is just as prejudiced against ‘them’ as they are against him. No one has the moral upper hand. Who do you root for then, as this thriller spirals out of control? Writer-director Joe Martin taps into the heart of outsider politics but muddies the water with unsympathetic characters. It’s also reductive, filtering the conflict only through the class system in Britain, working class vs wealth. Primarily played as a dark comedy, some of the flashbacks weaken the punch lines.  I can’t say I was ever truly on board with this one. The pacing is weird, sometimes frenetic, sometimes quite sedentary. But it’s the mixed messaging that’s most disappointing. This movie loses its thread and rejects its own cause. When you finally make it to the end you may just find yourself rooting for the wanker with the garden spade, and that’s not an enviable position for anyone.

SXSW: Two Pigeons

I can admit when I’m wrong.

Okay, no I can’t. But I’m going to make an exception here. You know I don’t handle horror well and so I didn’t make 2 Pigeons a high priority at SXSW, despite it having an interesting premise. And you know, about 10 seconds into the film, I realized that I was wrong. It’s already better looking and better sounding than I could have imagined.

Hussein (Mim Shaikh) is an untidy, unscrupulous estate agent; the film’s press release describes him as “oily, amoral” but I confess to two-pigeons-F71465-thumb-860xauto-65830sort of liking him, probably mostly for his loud, flashy suits. Hussein seems like a pretty regular bloke. He gets up, brushes his teeth, hustles his clients, masturbates, goes to bed, does it again. But when Hussein leaves his apartment, we realize he isn’t so regular after all. He doesn’t know it, but he’s got an uninvited, unseen guest living in his home. Orlan (Javier Botet) only comes out at night, or when Hussein’s at work. Why is he doing this? And for how long? Only his dangerously thin frame hints at a time frame no one is comfortable with.

Turns out, this isn’t so much a horror as a super creepy movie. I could possibly handle a stranger secretly living beneath my bed, but I CANNOT abide by a stranger “recycling” his mouthwash back into our (secretly, to me) communal bottle, or using my face cloth in areas of the body that are NOT THE FACE. Although, note to anyone secretly living in my home right now: please, please avail yourself of whatever breakfast cereal you like. All you can eat. I promise, I eat the stuff so rarely I won’t even notice.

But back to the why: this guy isn’t just getting a free ride, he’s fucking with his landlord-dupe. This movie seriously preys on our unconscious fears: that even with our doors safely locked, our bodies, our safety, our personal space are not inviolable while we sleep. Every day, Orlan’s violation and desecration escalates. YOUR SKIN WILL CRAWL.

The one problem I had with the film is how unperceptive Hussein is. It feels just a tad too much that no matter how far Orlan takes the transgressions, Hussein just kind of shrugs it off. And the harder Orlan works at being disgusting, the more personal it seems. And yet director Dominic Bridges keeps us in the dark for far too long.

So that’s it. That’s as far as I’ll take you. Should you watch it? That depends entirely on the iron in your stomach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: The movie was titled 2 Pigeons when we saw an early screening at SXSW. It has since been retitled Freehold.