Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Karlovy Vary Film Festival Highlights: Comedy

One of the signatures of this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was the breadth of its selection. The diversity of film types from around the world made the festival the perfect place for even the most discerning cinephile. Here are some of the highlights from Karlovy Vary's mix of genres.


Black Dynamite dir. Scott Sanders (USA)

The comedically broad and self-aware
Black Dynamite was one of the most energetic comedies at Karlovy Vary.

Black Dynamite (Michael Jai white), a muscular and brash former CIA agent with a license to kill, is shaken out of his semi-retirement when his estranged brother dies. In response, Black Dynamite unleashes a violent war on drugs to achieve his dream of getting smack off the streets thus making the hood safe again for "an afternoon stroll." His somewhat bizarre goal, meshing extremely violent means for a surprisingly delicate end, embodies a production that crackles with an absurd humor.

Screenwriter and star Michael Jai White plays the throwback hero Black Dynamite, who beds the ladies and beats the bad guys, with effortless charisma and charm. With his constantly stern expression as he recites one-liners that border on non sequiturs, White creates a hero as hilarious as he is physically imposing.

Black Dynamite in action

During a particularly reflective moment, Black Dynamite recalls the moment when he came face to face with a dying Vietnamese child during the war. Black Dynamite's incredible racial ignorance firmly thrusts his memory of the horrors of Vietnam from the dramatic to the comedic. He constantly dwells on the boy's "little Chinese eyes" when he uttered his last words. Although Black Dynamite admits that he did not speak the language, the hero dramatically announces that the little victim of war was asking him directly, "Why, Black Dynamite why?" Through this diatribe, White's distant expression remains full of melodramatic angst - a touch of sincerity that only further amplifies the ridiculousness of his character's deep thoughts. White so enthusiastically plays the lead that the film's difficult balance of homage and parody becomes engrossing.

Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum when the jokes slow down as the production evolves into a series of fight scenes that lack the charm and invention of the dialogue. Through its entirety, however, the filmmakers' delight with the genre of Blaxploitation is apparent. Black Dynamite stands as one "B-movie" that truly deserves many, many sequels. The infectiously fun comedy understands the thin line between amateurish and the hilarious, effortlessly finding the humor inherent to films made with a low budget but with lots of verve and style.

Escape from the Call Center dir. Federico Rizzo (Italy)

Whereas "Black Dynamite has very few satiric ambitions, the Italian
Escape from the Call Center pulsates with a Monty Python-esque bitterness towards bureaucracy as it exposes the emotionally deadening world of the call center. Even though the young hero has recently graduated with honors from a top university, he must take on a menial, unfulfilling job when his fancy degree turns out to be pretty useless in the real world. His vocational dilemma seems particularly relevant to any recently graduated Princetonian!

The film makes up for a lack of a directorial ornamentation with strange array of characters that transform the mundane into the surreal. When the newly graduated hero has an interview for a position at the call center, he comes face to face with the reality afflicted by true eccentrics in positions of power. With soft-spoken ease, the interviewer quietly changes the life story of the man announcing, with utter sincerity and even sympathy, that his grandmother was a prostitute.

Following this baffling ordeal, he proceeds on to the company's even more off-kilter psychologist. The setting of this deeply personal interview takes place in an entirely white room where another potential employer quietly screws in an imaginary light bulb. In this comedically sterile yet deranged environment, the unkempt doctor asks his subject a series increasingly bizarre questions culminating with the clincher, "have you ever copulated with animals?" That it remains maddeningly unclear whether the doctor finds such a prospect intensely disgusting or alluring illustrates the admirable subtlety of the acting within the production.

Complementing these bizarre characters are faux documentary confessionals that shed light on an Italy where labor laws render the worker powerless in the face of corporate interests. The film has an astonishing ability to intermingle its over-the-top personalities with its often documentary aesthetic creating an Italian reality brims with an understated and stifling madness. While the film loses some of its bite when it depicts the daily grind as a series of non sequitur hallucinations,
Escape from the Call Center effectively employs its comedy as a satiric weapon against a 21st-century workplace that transforms people into mere cogs in a machine built around the telephone line rather than the assembly line.

White Night Wedding dir. Baltasar Kormákur (Iceland)

Creating a cohesive black comedy can be very difficult as the film type demands a careful balance between light humor and very dark narrative elements. Many of the comedies presented at the festival veered, with often inconsistent results, into this dark realm of humor. The Icelandic film
White Night Wedding is a somewhat failed example of the genre as its effecting look at the dissension of a married couple within a lighthearted romp in a village feels jarringly schizophrenic.

On the cusp of a marriage with a beautiful young girl, Jon's (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) life appears to be a joyous one. Having struggled through the death of his first wife Anna (Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir), a wedding ceremony in the quaint Icelandic village represents a new beginning. Unfortunately, the professor continues to be haunted by the presence of his first wife of recently took her life on the island. As he again goes through the ritual of marriage, Hans slowly uncovers the extent of his grief and how it has left him emotionally crippled.

Much of the film takes place in flashback powerfully meditating upon the tumultuous union between Jon and Sarah. Although actor Hilmir Snær Guðnason adequately conveys Jon's increasing emotional distance, it is Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir who electrifies. The actress imbues Anna with a bizarre and overpowering energy that subtly reveals itself to be less an intellectual spark than a kind of lunacy. This strange presence manifests itself will strongly when Sarah attempts to celebrate Midsummer's Eve in a primal fashion. The actress radiates both strength and desperation when Sarah pleads with her husband to make love to her while brusquely flinging off her clothes. Her performance speaks to the pain caused when the hope of any mental and physical connection with another slowly dies.

While the narrative is indeed a heavy one that confronts very complex issues, much of the humor derives from very simple caricatures of slack-jawed yokels. The village entrepreneur, for instance, runs everything from an impossible golf course to a guided tour for foreigners. Driving about the tiny island, he announces in heavily accented English," there is a sea all around this island!" Making these characters appear all the more derivative is the repartee that often sounds cloyingly sitcom like. After a heated discussion with her dominating mother about finances, the bride stamps out of the room. In response, the mother looks about and wonders aloud," What did I say now?" The script is sadly riddled with such contrived dialogue that desperately tries, and fails, to garner laughs.

Just as the script's comedy seems oddly stale, the filmmakers cannot keep their direction fresh littering the film with helicopter shot after helicopter shot of the tiny island. The very lack of polish at the heart of
White Night Wedding in both its dialogue and direction sully a feature that attempts to expose the looming sadness lingering over even within the happiest of unions.

Next Up: Sam Mendes’ Away We Go and Devil's Town

The Office star teams up with the mind behind Revolutionary Road

In the next edition of my Karlovy Vary coverage, I will take a look at two comedies that manage to find genuine humor from the darkest of circumstances- Sam Mendes'
Away We Go and the superb Serbian film Devil's Town.


Anonymous said...

Actually,good post. thx