black comedy

Birthmarked (2018)

I can relate to the creative process behind Birthmarked since most of my ideas also work out fine in my head. It’s when I start realizing them that I run into problems, lots of them, and that’s what seems to have happened here. The film, directed by Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais from a script by Marc Tulin, takes on the nature vs. nurture debate and is about two scientist parents who engage in a highly unethical experiment with their own children as subjects. They hope to settle the question of whether a person is shaped primarily by biology or by environment, but really they also wouldn’t mind the prestige and bottomless funding.

The story, which begins in the late 1970s, is ripe with possibility. Ben Morin (Matthew Goode) and Catherine O’Neal (Toni Collette) both come from families of celebrated scientists, and when she becomes pregnant with their first child, they decide to embark on an experiment that will shape their lives for the next ten years or so. They hypothesize that a child can be brought up so as to overcome his or her background, which is why they end up adopting Maya (Megan O’Kelly), who descends from “a long line of dim-witted individuals,” and Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), whose family is prone to criminal violence. The couple set off to an isolated house in the woods, lab rat babies in tow, where they expect to raise Maya to be a genius, Maurice to be a pacifist, and their biological son, Luke (Jordan Poole), to be an artist.

You can guess that things don’t go according to plan and in fact progress terribly by decade’s end, even with the help of oddball Russian assistant and former Olympic sharpshooter, Samsonov (Andreas Apergis). Ben and Catherine find that they could be beaten to the punch by Portuguese scientists who are conducting a similar experiment. Their financial backer, a wealthy Terry Richardson-looking guy (Michael Smiley) whose thing is rebel science, threatens to make them repay the entire cost of the project if they don’t get the results they expected. Worst of all, after rounds of testing, their children appear to be nothing more than average, socially well-adjusted kids!

I suspect what is at the heart of the film is not a question of nature vs. nurture but one of parenting and the lengths that well-intentioned parents go to give them certain advantages in life. I doubt anyone would object raising children with a critical mind, an eye for the arts, and a streak of pacifism. But one of Ben and Catherine’s problems is that they are too focused on results and won’t, or don’t know how to, let their kids be kids. Maybe it’s okay to let them smack each other with a canoe paddle every now and again (so long as it’s on the bum and not malicious) or listen to Iron Maiden on blast or even perform a play inspired by stray issues of Penthouse. Actually, no, that is not okay.

So there is something worth exploring in Birthmarked; the narrative, however, comes out in chunks. Ben seems to be the steady hand, with Goode in a persistent state of bewilderedness, but Catherine is all over the place. She can’t sort out when she wants to play scientist, when she wants to play mom, and when she wants to be both. Even with Collette in the role, it’s hard to feel sympathy for her. The opening voiceover also suggests some unresolved issues between Ben and Catherine and their far more successful parents. I can’t help but think they’re acting on feelings of inadequacy and arrogance and that their own upbringings warped their perception of their children. (So nurture?) None of that gets a mention though. Perhaps if the same attention was paid to developing character as was given to crafting the Wes Anderson vibe, the film might have worked better. It’s also too bad that the children, who are the focus of all this labor, end up void of any personality and are left with only labels to identify themselves.

Released: 2018
Prod: Pierre Even
Dir: Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais
Writer: Marc Tulin
Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Andreas Apergis, Jordan Poole, Megan O’Kelly, Anton Gillis-Adelman, Michael Smiley, Suzanne Clément, Fionnula Flanagan
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)

This Canadian buddy cop movie starts like most buddy cop movies do, with two grouchy detectives accidentally ripping a victim’s body in half. It’s a gruesome beginning but it’s also darkly comic and a sign of things to come. David Bouchard (Patrick Huard) and Martin Ward (Colm Feore) are called to the Ontario-Québec border after a body is discovered dangling from the boundary marker. David, a Quebecer who doesn’t give a damn about your police procedures, and Martin, a Torontonian who gives a great many damns about all police procedures, butt heads while trying to pass the investigation back to the other side. It’s to no avail because both are assigned to the case. They have to figure out who’s behind the murder while also overcoming their cultural and linguistic differences.

Having neither caught up on the minutiae of intra-Canadian rivalries nor brushed up on my high school French, some finer points of comedy flew over me. There’s a lot of French word play that I imagine is great fun for francophones, judging from David’s many smirks, but even if you don’t keep pace with the lesson on conjugating expletives, the humor is broad enough for those of us accessing the subtitles. Laughs come not just from language and wit but also from cultural and personality differences.

David and Martin are opposites in every way, the one exception being their competence at police work. The odd couple pairing is a worn device, and this film relies a little too much on stereotype to draw out their characters. Of course the headstrong David wears a black leather jacket and pummels suspects into his trunk. He’s “Rambo on steroids” according to Martin, a guy who prefers black turtlenecks and chatting with perps over a glass of ginger ale. But even if David and Martin are predictable, actors Huard and Feore have a strong chemistry that leans into their characters’ stereotypes, giving the detectives and their relationship a lot more crackle.

The fiery back-and-forth between the two feeds into the absurdity of the story, which again starts with a half-shredded corpse before escalating into a deadly plot that threatens the (fake) professional hockey league, at least the Canadian side of it. David and Martin don’t just have one murder to solve but several, and all are a matter of national importance because, well, hockey. The stakes are high, but the action and comedy live up, much to the enjoyment of me. There are some small but satisfying laughs. My favorite might be towards the end of the film when the killer gives chase to Martin, except that the former is wearing a gigantic mascot costume and can’t negotiate the staircase with his gigantic mascot feet. The more intense scenes deliver too, such as the time David busts his way, warrant be damned, into a suspect’s house. He’s pretty proud of himself, until a weed garden is set alight and he has to crawl out of burning building filled with marijuana smoke under the cover of a bathtub. It’s high times for all.

Released: 2006
Prod: Kevin Tierney
Dir: Eric Canuel
Writer: Leila Basen, Alex Epstein, Patrick Huard, Kevin Tierney
Cast: Patrick Huard, Colm Feore, Lucie Laurier, Sylvain Marcel, Pierre Lebeau, Ron Lea, Sarain Boylan, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Louis-José Houde, Patrice Bélanger
Time: 116 min
Lang: French and English
Country: Canada
Reviewed: 2018

30 Minutes or Less (2011)

[Taps into microphone.] Has anyone told this joke yet? Yes? Can I tell it anyway? Yes? Okay, this movie should have been 30 minutes or less. [Crickets.] Wait, it’s not a joke because even at a brisk 83 minutes, this movie lasts about an hour too long. This supposed comedy about a pair of bumbling, misguided layabouts who force another pair of bumbling, misguided layabouts to rob a bank, 30 Minutes or Less lacks a sensible narrative much less well earned laughs.

Writer Michael Diliberti spins his plot out of a curious but not at all funny true story from 2003 when a pizza delivery man died after a bomb he was wearing exploded during a bank robbery planned by him and his friends. Leave it to Hollywood to run with this absurdity. Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, the aimless pizza deliverer who gets roped into the scheme by two numbskulls. Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) aren’t what we’d call credits to society. The friends spend their days shooting watermelons, drinking beer in a shack, and sometimes cleaning a pool for ten dollars an hour. But they do aspire to more in life. Dwayne’s goal is to start a tanning salon from where he can also run a prostitution ring. (So yes, men made this movie.)

Luckily Dwayne’s father, Major (Fred Ward), is a lotto winner and multimillionaire. He’s also a domineering sonofabitch who thinks he’s still in the Marines and treats his son accordingly. Dwayne has no qualms about killing his old man for the inheritance so that he can begin achieving his life dreams. However, he doesn’t want to do the killing nor does he have the money to hire a hit man. Now this seems like an easily resolvable problem: enlist the killer’s services and promise a bigger payout when the job’s done – the victim is a multimillionaire after all. But maybe I’m not wise to the ways of contract killing and this is not a sound alternative. Instead, Dwayne and Travis make the more logical choice and kidnap Nick, strap a bomb to his chest, and force him to rob a bank, or else.

The two are clearly not evolved beings. It’s no accident that they wear monkey masks to hide their identities. Nick isn’t a paragon of human intellect either though. In this story, the most adult-like character might be his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), who works as a substitute teacher and recognizes that he has responsibilities, like getting to work on time. But even he is prone to fits of juvenile rage, and the two fall out after Chet discovers that Nick has been banging his twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria).

The actors are confirmed funny people, so why is this movie so boring? At some point, you realize you’re just watching a bunch of idiots try to outsmart each other. Even when you throw in the always dependable Michael Peña as the hit man, it’s still a parade of whiny nitwits. Sometimes ineptitude is just not funny.

Released: 2011
Prod: Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller, Jeremy Kramer
Dir: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Michael Diliberti
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Michael Peña, Dilshad Vadsaria, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017