10/2/12: Klown, Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, New Girl S1, Adventures in Plymptoons!, Sound of my Voice, Iron Sky, Dark Shadows

Klown (R, 2010, Drafthouse Films)
If Frank (Frank Hvam) arranged his skills on a resume and did so honestly, the list would include an ability to constantly say the wrong thing, a tendency to commit social debacles that would drop Larry David’s jaw, and an almost magical knack for constantly ending up in his underwear at the close of a situation gone wrong. In other words, when his unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend (Mia Lyhne) expresses doubts about Frank’s ability to take care of a child, who can argue with her? Frank can, that’s who. And as a show of force, he invites his 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) to join him and his friend Casper (Casper Christensen) on a canoe trip. Only problem: The purpose of the trip is a weekend of unbridled debauchery that no kid has any business witnessing. (Frank also technically kidnaps Bo, but the kid — who somehow combines a sad-sack disposition with a level of unflappability that’s beyond his years — doesn’t seem to mind, so no problem there.) “Klown” sets the stage for some extremely cringeworthy laughs, and one of its biggest subplots involves subject matter that (a) no American comedy would dare touch and (b) can’t even really be described here. But the wondrous thing about “Klown” is the way it takes that topic, attacks it unflinchingly, mines it for considerable laughs, and still comes away with something that’s almost triumphantly sweet despite having no right to be sweet at all. Broad and subtle comedy mingle with impressive ease, but it’s the continual outpouring of awkward but genuine affection — and the way it makes Frank’s every stupid move so much easier to understand — that really makes “Klown” something special. In Danish with English subtitles.
Extras: Hvam/Christensen/director commentary, an episode of the “Klown” television series, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, outtakes, 16-page photo booklet.

Phunny Business: A Black Comedy (NR, 2010, Indican Pictures)
When Raymond Lambert endeavored to open All Jokes Aside in Chicago’s South Loop in 1991, his ambitions weren’t simply remarkable because comedy clubs that catered to black comedians barely even existed, much aspired to serve the upscale downtown crowd. Rather, it was remarkable because Lambert had zero experience starting a business, evaluating entertainment talent or dealing with the volatile species known as the standup comedian. But it worked — and how, with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, JB Smoove and all eight Original Kings and Queens of Comedy effectively igniting their careers between the walls of Lambert’s 300-seat club. So what happened next? It’s an incredible story, and “Phunny Business” has an incredibly good time recounting the highs, lows and politics (what else?) of running a comedy club inside a neighborhood and era that didn’t sit still any more than Lambert did. Partially emceed by a very likable Lambert himself, “Business'” story alone — which divides its time between the club’s history and some extremely funny anecdotes about those who performed there — is entertaining and emotionally turbulent enough to stand on its own. But “Business” seems to understand that the chance to see so many stars in their professional infancy is the draw behind the draw. The old standup footage doesn’t dominate the proceedings, but it is plentiful, and it does not disappoint.

New Girl: Season One (NR, 2011, Fox)
Fresh off a bad breakup, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is a flailing, babbling, emotionally overextended mess. So it’s fitting that when she finds a new place to live, her new roommates (Lamorne Morris, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield) are experiencing social meltdowns of their own. And even more fitting than that? The emotional temperament of the show that brings it all together and almost certainly wholly divides viewers in the process. Like its namesake, “New Girl” flails, flounders, sings, mugs and hyperactively acknowledges the need for a filter that is nowhere to be found. Through one set of eyes, it’s 22 minutes of joyous hysteria that rages masterfully against a modern sitcom conventional wisdom that prefers dry wit to broad, loud gags. Through another set of eyes and ears, the same show is an exhausting audiovisual assault where everyone is overcaffeinated and trying way too hard to cram as much comedic energy as can possibly fit in what turns out to be a lengthy 22 minutes. Festively brilliant or needlessly nauseating? Check it out and take a side — because “Girl” has, and quite emphatically so.
Contents: 24 episodes, plus commentary, deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, alternate jokes and bloopers.

Adventures in Plymptoons! (NR, 2012, Cinema Libre)
Even in a medium where there seemingly are no rules, animator Bill Plympton is a rule breaker — a steadfast lone wolf whose creations come alive almost solely from pencil, paper and his two hands alone, which have labored in solitude over who knows how many 14-plus-hour days. Some would call that workaholism. Plympton prefers to call it hedonism, and one trip through the spiritually contagious “Adventures in Plymptoons!” is proof positive of all the fun he’s having. As documentaries go, “Plymptoons” is stylistically contradictory, fronted somewhat unfortunately by a fuzzy picture quality that may very well be a silent, subversive tribute to the VHS standard. But what the presentation lacks in gloss, it redeems in spades elsewhere. Plympton’s story benefits from a nice mix of Plympton’s anecdotes and words from friends, fellow artists and those he otherwise inspired. But “Plymptoons” absolutely delights in making fun of the documentary format while also utilizing it, and the sharp turns the movie takes at the intersection of heartfelt and completely farcical is an art form in its own right. Plympton isn’t the only one having fun here: Everyone up to and including the movie itself is having a blast, and while “Plymptoons” may be designed as a celebration of Plympton’s work (which is, of course, on considerable display throughout the movie), it’s an even better tribute to the art of making a living doing something you love.
Extras: Footage from Oregon’s Bill Plympton Day, silent short film “The Toonist” (starring Plympton and Gus Van Sant), deleted scenes.

Sound of my Voice (R, 2011, Fox)
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) don’t know what to expect when they enter an ordinary house that doubles as the compound for a cult. But that doesn’t stop the two undercover journalists, who also moonlight as boyfriend and girlfriend, from thinking they know. They presume Maggie (Brit Marling) — the group’s leader, and a woman who claims she’s traveled back in time from the dystopian 2050s — is a fraud, and they’re hoping they can expose her and free her followers by becoming followers themselves and infiltrating the movement. Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Sure is — if you actually know what you’re getting into, which turns out to be a long way from simply presuming to know. “Sound of my Voice,” seemingly recognizant of this difference, doesn’t shy away from exploiting presumption. It embraces all the stereotypical things — from white robes to hushed tones to secret handshakes — one might associate with the kind of place Peter and Lorna would presume to take down. But there’s more going on here than superficialities alone can express. “Voice” creepily and suggestively toys with assumption to great effect, and the deeper it goes, the less it is about abstracts and the more it is about its characters. And once the story becomes dependent on those who thought they had it all spelled out, all bets are off.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Iron Sky (R, 2012, Entertainment One)
While the Nazis were decimated in 1945, they weren’t defeated. To the contrary, a slice of the Third Reich had already embarked for the moon, where it proceeded to construct a secret base and begin work on an equally secret new weapon. Now, in 2018, the surprise invasion of Earth is nearly a go. What better time for an American astronaut (Christopher Kirby) — who isn’t really a trained astronaut, but a male model — to wander right into the moon base during an election-year publicity stunt on behalf of the President? A story that begins with the Nazis on the moon can go any number of different ways — a point “Iron Sky” drives home through an opening scene that’s about 75 percent unsettling and 25 percent stupidly silly. But silliness quickly takes the lead, and “Sky” mostly uses the premise as an excuse to make indiscriminate fun of Nazi ambitions, American ambitions and a wide range of geopolitical interests that lie in between. The result is more broadly amusing than hilariously cutting, and “Sky’s” idea of satire largely entails turning its characters into walking, talking cartoons with too much power for their own good. That won’t provide much payoff for those who want something with real teeth, and there’s almost nothing here for those intrigued by the sci-fi possibilities of an interstellar rematch with one of history’s most formidable enemies. For those who simply want a good time, though, “Sky” is offering one. Its jabs aren’t very original, but it throws so many of them that boredom never stands a chance.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, making-of feature, behind-the-scenes outtakes.

Dark Shadows (PG-13, 2012, Warner Bros.)
Fans of “Dark Shadows” justifiably seethed over the revelation that their beloved gothic soap opera had transformed into a campy Tim Burton comedy in which series staple Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) rises from a 198-year nap and finds himself badly out of step in 1970s America. But there’s no possible way to do “Shadows” any kind of useful justice in the span of a feature film anyway, so really, why not go nuts and wonder what if? We’ll never truly know, because while “Shadows” briefly does run with the idea, it does so with the conviction of an honor student cutting class for the first time. After a few laughs — some funny, some so-so — “Shadows” backtracks and makes a seemingly earnest effort to actually do justice to the show’s legacy. It doesn’t really succeed here either, though, and as the characters, subplots and moods pile up, it becomes clear “Shadows” isn’t positioned to do any one thing extremely well. Like most Burton movies, it’s fun to look at and, thanks to Depp and his supporting cast, fun to listen to as well. But “Shadows” ultimately wilts under the cloud of its identity crisis — afraid to fully alienate the show’s fans, afraid to turn away those who never heard of the show, and ultimately unable to be anything better than a tepidly entertaining but disappointingly muddled gathering of ideas that don’t get along. (At least the soundtrack is great.) Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter and Jackie Earle Haley, among others, also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, nine behind-the-scenes features.