FILM NEXUS VOL. 3: Better Living Through Chemistry
A timid small-town pharmacist, with a wife who walks over him every chance she gets, a son with a strange obsessive take on school vandalism, and a boss who belittles him on a regular basis meets an eccentric, bored with life, femme fatale who convinces him to give into his darker side, with a lot of help from various chemical sources – a remake of countless films noir? Not exactly, though the film “Better Living Through Chemistry”, now showing at Cinema Center, definitely owes a quite a bit of its set-up to movies like “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” However, as the greats from the film noir period where weighted down, almost literally, in the shadows of the characters’ immoral deeds, “Better Living Through Chemistry” pokes fun at those elements and satirizes them to great effect.
What makes the dark humor in “Better Living Through Chemistry” work is the transition of humdrum protagonist Doug Varney into uninhibited hedonist, and that transformation is believable because Varney is played by Sam Rockwell. There always seems to be some anger just under the surface with Rockwell’s characters, even in his role as the mentor lifeguard in “The Way, Way Back” from this summer, he seemed to be mad at the world and his place in it. No matter the role, Rockwell holds a lid over that darkness that is just ready to erupt, and that inner conflict creates great comedy in many of his roles.
Dark comedies are one of my favorite film genres, but there is a great level of difficulty in pulling them off effectively, think about how easy it is to go “too far” and lose faith from the audience from making fun of a character’s suffering. Here is a list of some of the successful dark comedies that can be found on Netflix streaming. Feel free to binge watch them all after seeing Sam Rockwell do his thing in “Better Living Through Chemistry” at Cinema Center. Also, if you have any ideas for films you would like to see at Cinema Center, private message our Facebook account before midnight tonight (3/21) and we will send you a coupon for FREE concessions.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Very few directors could turn the tragedy that occurs at the beginning of this film into the jumping off point for a biting satire about fame, family, love, and all those other things that people aspire to obtain, but lucky for us Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, the guy from the “Police Academy” films) has turned his attention to making dark comedies like “World’s Greatest Dad.” The film stars Robin Williams as a well-meaning father and struggling writer whose most famous work is spawned from a lie and humiliating catastrophe. Like most great dark comedies, this film walks a thin line between making you want to laugh, and just making you cry for its characters. It features one of Robin Williams’ best performances, who is able to invoke sympathy, even after doing some pretty despicable things throughout the course of its mostly high school-set story. The tight script even finds a way to integrate the Bruce Hornsby-heavy soundtrack into a bit of a plot point.
Uncle Errol (that’s what I call him, anyway) Morris is known for making documentaries that showcase all forms of the human condition, in a nonjudgmental way, mostly because he has the ability to get people talking and they forget they are being filmed through the use of his interrotron machine. In “Tabloid,” Morris explores the famous ‘Mormon Sex in Chains’ case that created a British tabloid war throughout the late 1970s. Joyce McKinney was accused of kidnapping a Mormon man, who she knew before he moved to England, and keeping him chained to a bed, and forcing him for sexual favors. The film goes to lengths of not making fun of anyone involved, or the nature of any alleged crimes, but it allows McKinney to explain herself, and as she does so, her story begins to double-back on itself, unwind, and soon it doesn’t even seem like McKinney is exactly sure what happened. A bit like Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” nearly everyone in this film has a different idea about what happened during the course of events it explores, and no one’s account is quite as outrageous as McKinney’s.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Poor Tucker and Dale, they just want to spend some time together fixing up their vacation home that just happens to look like the every dilapidated cabin found in almost every horror film. That is exactly what a group of college students think, and through a series of misunderstandings, believe the harmless Tucker and Dale are murderers out to get them, so they decide to attack the duo before anything horrible happens. And, then very, very horrible things happen. Decapitations, impalements, and other horrible ways to die have never been quite as funny as in “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,” and part of the reason is because the heroes are so sweet, and the pesky college kids are so privileged and stupid to think that just because the cabin needs a coat of paint, anyone who resides in there must mean them harm. When you look past the blood and the gore, at its heart, “Tucker and Dale” is a comedy of manners, not unlike a lot of Shakespearean comedies, only full of more entrails.
In case the dark comedies above can’t hold you over, here is a list of other films worth exploring. Don’t forget to Facebook message us your film suggestions and get a coupon for FREE concessions.
Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) – Hunter S. Thompson’s first screen persona, played by the one and only Bill Murray!
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) – Another great film starring Sam Rockwell
Wilfred TV Series (2011)
Vampire’s Kiss (1989) – the mother of all dark comedies, the mother of all Nicolas Cage performances – Not available on Netflix, at all.
Jonah Crismore is Cinema Center’s Executive Director, he was just kidding when he said he would lead a workshop based on Nicolas Cage’s leadership style in “Vampire’s Kiss.”
FILM NEXUS Vol. 2: St. Patrick’s Day Picks
There are people, currently walking among us, who do not care so much for traditional St. Patrick’s Day festivities such as wearing green, attending raucous parades, barhopping, and singing Pogues songs in various alleyways. I feel pity for these people, but respect their hesitation for staying in, it is really easy to understand when you are not able to hear your friends at crowded bars, or have to deal with the drunk and unruly strangers, and always live under the threat of being pinched because someone didn’t happen to notice your green striped socks. Luckily for these people, there is Netflix, even on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and although there is not a whole lot of selection of Irish films with their streaming service, the few that are available are pretty great.
Let me preface this selection by saying I was looking for films that dealt with Irish culture, made in Ireland, by Irish filmmakers or with predominantly Irish actors. While I love many of the films that explore the Irish-American experience, I often feel those films focus too heavily on criminality and do not represent enough of a full picture of Irish-American life, for every “In America,” the beautiful family portrait by Jim Sheridan, there are “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed,” “The Boondock Saints,” and “State of Grace.” Also, these films are usually on heavily rotation on television in mid-March, anyway, and I hope your filmic voyage to the Emerald Isle will be full of more interesting experiences than something you can randomly tune into on TBS.
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for his role as Irish writer Christy Brown in this Jim Sheridan film. Born with cerebral palsy, Brown’s left foot was the only part of his body where he was able to exert any control, and by using his foot, he was able to write some of the most interesting modern Irish literature, including his autobiography that this film was based on. This film could very well only have worked with Day-Lewis in the lead, who was so committed to his role, he would not feed himself while on the set. Besides Day-Lewis, the film is elevated by the fact it does not hide Brown was at times a cruel person, who was not humble about his talents at all, and lived a good part of his life as a selfish alcoholic. Like the film’s subject, the film is a complex work, and does not hide all the many ways genius explodes onto the world.
Waking Ned Devine (1998)
This sweet, small village set comedy, is about loyalty and friendship, just as much as it is about a conspiracy to fool a lottery official into believing the winner of a £6.8m prize did not die of shock when he realized he won, but is actually one of his still-living friends. The two masterminds of the plan are Jackie and Michael, two senior citizens who see a way for the whole town to benefit from their deception. One of the true highlights of this film is how it is able to show different members of the village grapple with the morality of the situation, and if taking their cut of the winnings is worth the risk of their neighbors going to jail. If I had to pick another great point of the film, it is the version of “The Parting Glass,” that plays at the end of the film.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)
For a couple of years, I’ve been watching this film on or around St. Patrick’s Day. Set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, both of which took place in the early 1920s, it stars Cillian Murphy as Damien, a man who gives up an education studying medicine to take up arms in the IRA against the British. This film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes International Film Festival, forgoes many war (and at times, gangster) film clichés and staples, in order to show events in a realistic, and historically accurate manner. Many of the scenes, especially those that depict torture, are hard to watch, and Damien does horrendous things in the name of the cause, but this film informs the audience through its ability to make events that happened 90+ years ago visceral and real. This is definitely not a pick-me-up kind of film, but that does not mean there isn’t something uplifting in Ken Loach’s filmmaking, and the courage it took for the actors to portray such conflicted characters.
Some other great films to watch around St. Patrick’s Day are:
The Crying Game (1992)
Intermission (2004) – Not available on Netflix streaming
Hunger (2008) – Not available on Netflix streaming
Shane MacGowan: If I Should Fall From Grace (2003) – Not available on Netflix streaming
Also, if you want to go out, but don’t want to deal with the bars or crowds, Cinema Center will be open on March 17th, and would be excited if you chose to spend the holiday with us.
Jonah Crismore is the Executive Director at Cinema Center and thinks “Down All the Days,” inspired by the work by Christy Brown, is an underrated Pogues song.