Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji discusses ‘Mosul’

Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji discusses ‘Mosul’
Mohamed Al-Daradji is perhaps the most acclaimed living Iraqi filmmaker. (Getty)
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Updated 10 December 2020

Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji discusses ‘Mosul’

Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji discusses ‘Mosul’
  • The acclaimed filmmaker takes us behind the scenes of Netflix’s Arabic-language Hollywood blockbuster

DUBAI: On a cold winter’s night in Utah in 2010, Mohamed Al-Daradji, perhaps the most acclaimed living Iraqi filmmaker, was approached by a group of middle-aged women. His film “Son of Babylon” had just premiered, a story about an Iraqi mother searching for her son, a soldier who never returned from battle. The women were all mothers themselves, and each of them had dealt with the same heartbreak as the woman in his film.

“One of the women came and hugged me, like from nowhere,” Al-Daradji tells Arab News. “I was just standing still, not knowing what to do. Should I hug her, should I not? And then the woman told me, ‘We are mothers of American soldiers lost in the war in Iraq. I'm crying and hugging you not just because I'm remembering my son, but because you make me feel the character of the mother is like me. We never thought about the Iraqi mothers. Thanks to your film, we can see them, we can feel them. we can understand them. They have the same emotions as we do.’”  

While Al-Daradji’s films always been personal meditations on the state of his country as it reconciles with its past, struggles with its present and charts a course for its future, he often thinks back to that moment in Utah. That moment, in which two cultures looked at each other and saw the same face looking back at them, proves to Al-Daradji that it’s possible to achieve another key goal—to make the world understand Iraq as well. 

“Mosul” is on Netflix across the world. (Supplied)

There are signs that his efforts are beginning to pay off. A few years ago, Al-Daradji was reading a script about Iraqi soldiers resisting the Daesh siege on the Iraqi city of Mosul, when he noticed something curious. Even though it was written by an American, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and he kept waiting for an American character to show up and save the day — just like in every other American feature about Iraq — that moment never came. He realized it was an American film told in good faith from an entirely Iraqi point of view. Al-Daradji began to cry. 

“I called Matthew and I spoke with him. I said, ‘Listen, I will help you, because I feel this is a duty for me, and it's a great story. We need to shape it, make it more authentic, make it feel that it has come from Iraqi people.’ I knew I would fight to help them, because I can see the intention of these people, and that’s what they wanted it to be,” says Al-Daradji.

The film became “Mosul,” which was just released on Netflix across the world. Al-Daradji’s contributions as an executive producer proved invaluable to the film, turning it into an American blockbuster like none before it. Not only does it feature exclusively Iraqi characters played by Arabs, the entirety of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Arabic, despite being aimed at a global audience.

Mohamed Al-Daradji and the Russo Brothers at TIFF 2019. (Getty)

Al-Daradji and Carnahan were together every day on set for months, filming in the hot Moroccan sun during Ramadan, with a number of cast members fasting. Even through the struggles of the climate, the two continued a spirited and open collaboration to ensure the film would be true to both the real-life stories on which it was based and to the culture which it was bringing to life. 

“He was always listening and asking what I thought. We talked about the script, the characters, the cast, the location, and I was there with him the whole time. If I saw anything, I would come to him and say to him, ‘This can be better. This would be good.’ He was really open minded,” says Al-Daradji. “It was part of my voice, but in a different way. In ‘Son of Babylon,’ I was in full control of everything. With ‘Mosul,’ there was a vision and I needed to respect it and help this vision, and there was very great cooperation with Matthew.” 

The film is also produced by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who have directed films including “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Endgame,” the latter of which is the highest-grossing film of all time, and produced Netflix’s film “Extraction,” which is the most popular Netflix film of all time with over 100 million views, according to the streaming giant. For two Hollywood titans to take on an Arabic-language film is hugely important to Al-Daradji.

Al-Daradji’s contributions as an executive producer proved invaluable to the film, turning it into an American blockbuster like none before it. (Supplied)

“This is honestly is a very, very big risk for them to take. What’s the market for it? If you think about it, back before the shooting, before the production happened, when they decide to make it, there is no big market for foreign-language (Hollywood) films. I think Anthony and Joe are brave, as are the companies involved, to take this decision,” says Al-Daradji.

Al-Daradji has always been a risk-taker himself. In 1995, aged 17, he fled Iraq to make the harrowing journey to Europe in search of a better life.

“I spent one year in Europe lost, trying to find a place as a refugee, from Romania to Holland. If I had been captured by the Romanians or the Hungarians when I crossed the border, I would have been given to the Iraqi embassy, handed into (former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein’s authority and I then would have been hanged,” says Al-Daradji. 

Al-Daradji has always been a risk-taker himself. In 1995, aged 17, he fled Iraq to make the harrowing journey to Europe in search of a better life. (Supplied)

Al-Daradji returned to Iraq in 2003, making some of the most acclaimed films in Iraq’s history, including “Ahlaam” (2005), “In the Sands of Babylon” (2013) and “The Journey” (2017). He continued to take risks, even being captured by Al-Qaeda while making “Ahlaam,” and narrowly escaping death. His efforts have been widely recognized, with three of his films chosen as Iraq’s official selection for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) — the most of any Iraqi filmmaker. 

“I’m not the same person I was in 2004 before the kidnapping. I wasn't at peace; I was full of dilemmas and searching for answers. I’m lucky now, because I’m still searching, but on a different level,” he says. 

The next part of Al-Daradji’s journey will be a step into the past, as he looks to explore some of Iraq’s history to make sense of its uncertain present. 

“I want this generation to see that it used to be a good country,” he says. “You just need to work differently. You just need to not give up. You just need to have hope. Without hope, I could not be the filmmaker I am today. I have always had the hope to keep going, and this is what we need to have today. Hope for the new generation to see a different Iraq, not escape from Iraq, nor to see it from another place.”

Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s ‘Voices of the Lost’ is a dark, profound novel

The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied
The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied
Updated 17 April 2021

Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s ‘Voices of the Lost’ is a dark, profound novel

The book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Supplied

CHICAGO: Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, “Voices of the Lost,” written by acclaimed Lebanese author Hoda Barakat and newly translated into English by Marilyn Booth, is a dark, profound novel that follows the lives of six men and women who confess their untold truths to their loved ones through letters. None of the letters reaches their intended recipients, however, and their devastating admissions are left to strangers who are then inspired to disclose their own secrets. And through their confessions, a series of letters emerges on life, love and devastating loss.

In an unknown part of the world, where war, poverty and destruction have caused life to veer in unpredictable directions, strangers struggle with the events of the past, both those they were responsible for and those they were victims of, which forced them into lives they neither wanted nor could have ever dreamed of. Split into three parts — for the lost, for the searching, and those left behind — the novel begins with an undocumented immigrant who is writing to an ex-girlfriend. He writes to her of the most profound and disturbing moment in his childhood, one that changed the trajectory of his life forever. From that moment on, life has never quite been the same, and it has led him to a dark place where he cannot mentally, spiritually or physically settle.

Barakat’s novel is a delicate experiment in confession and a testament to the catalyzing power of writing to reveal the truth. Her characters commit their lives to paper without the fear of retribution, confessing their crimes of infidelity, torture and more. None of the writers can return to his or home, to a state of comfort or to the past. Some have lost their countries, while others have simply run out of time.

Barakat’s characters must force themselves to move forward from their past sufferings. Where loved ones and society may not accept their revelations of shortcomings or shame, their confessions are a reconciliation with themselves. And in writing of their pain, they connect with one another. They are not alone, no matter how lonely the act of writing a letter can be. And in a moment of consciousness, awake in their confessions, Barakat’s characters reach a spiritual peak within themselves, one that pushes them to continue surviving.


US actress Yara Shahidi to produce new TV series

Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images
Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images
Updated 17 April 2021

US actress Yara Shahidi to produce new TV series

Yara Shahidi shot to fame for her role on TV’s ‘Black-ish.’ File/ Getty Images

DUBAI: US actress Yara Shahidi is developing a new television series via her production company, 7th Sun Productions. The part-Middle Eastern star is set to executive produce and develop an on-screen adaptation of Cole Brown’s critically-acclaimed debut book “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World,” alongside her mother and business partner Keri Shahidi and Brown for ABC Signature.

“Honored to bring @coletdbrown’s incredible & nuanced telling of our stories as brown folx onto screens w/ my PARTNER IN CRIME @chocolatemommyluv! (sic)” wrote the 21-year-old on Instagram, alongside a screenshot of a Deadline article announcing the news of the series.

“The work of displaying and celebrating the ENTIRE spectrum of our humanity continues to feel more prescient (sic),” she added.

Published in 2020, “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” is a first-hand account of what it’s like to navigate life in America as a mixed-race adolescent. The book was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.

According to the author, the book is heavily inspired by an essay he wrote in college.

“What a dream come true this is!” exclaimed Cole on Instagram. “It still astounds me to think that what began as a college essay a few years ago has made it all the way to ABC. No duo I’d rather work with to bring Greyboy to life than @yarashahidi & @chocolatemommyluv. Let’s get to work! (sic),” the author posted on social media.

Back in September, Shahidi took to social media to praise Cole’s debut book, writing that “his honest reflections on the way in which racial identity takes shape and shape-shifts through his own experiences feels intimate, and yet taps in to the common experience of moving through space as a black and brown person.” She added that “It’s been a must-read in our household!”

“Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” isn’t the only project that the “Grown-ish” star is currently working on. 

The US-Iranian actress and activist is also producing a new single-camera comedy series, titled “Smoakland,” for Freeform via her production company 7th Sun.

The rising star and her mother announced the launch of their new production company in July and signed an exclusive overall deal with ABC Studios which will see them develop television projects for streaming, cable and broadcast platforms.

In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
Updated 17 April 2021

In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
  • Middle Eastern fans look back on 10 years of a show that changed pop culture forever

RIYADH: Whether you loved it or hated it, followed it casually or watched every episode twice, chances are you’ve at least heard of the HBO smash hit series “Game of Thrones.” The eight-season fantasy epic, which began 10 years ago today, has secured its place in pop culture history as one of the most famous TV shows of all time.

The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the show began on April 17, 2011, to an audience of eager fans. Over the course of its run, the show has garnered 160 Emmy nominations, taking home 59 of them, making it one of the most successful shows in history.

Najla Hussam, an avid fantasy fan who cited Martin as one of her favorite authors, told Arab News that the show provided a way for her to bond with her father, who started reading A Song of Ice and Fire when the first volume was published in 1996.

“My dad tried for years to get me to read the novels, but I honestly just wasn’t that interested. When the TV series first came out, he asked me to watch the first season with him to see if he could get me to change my mind about it. I was hooked instantly, and once the season was over, I borrowed all the books from him so we could discuss our theories about how the future of the show might look,” she said.

The show has also gained notoriety for other reasons. Due to its exclusivity of being shown on the HBO network, the show is also famous for being the most pirated TV series of all time. Consistently throughout its run, Game of Thrones topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access internationally to HBO’s viewing and streaming services.

In the MENA region, the show was broadcast on the Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), with previous seasons being made available via the network’s on-demand service, OSN Play. Leading up to the start of season 7, OSN launched a 24-hour binge-watching channel, with all of the previous seasons being made available.

However, in the Arab world, the show saw a lot of pirating activity for another, unusual reason; the OSN network broadcast the show in its full, uncensored version, which caused a lot of fans to hunt online for a version that removed or glossed over some of the more controversial themes.

Danya Assad, a 30-year old viewer from Riyadh, said that she only started watching the series around the start of the fourth season in 2013. She was only able to get into the fandom around the time censored episodes started to become available online.

“I heard about a Game of Thrones group online made up of fans who volunteered to censor some of the more unsavory content, and that was how I was able to start watching,” she said. “I loved the premise of the show, I’m a huge fan of fantasy television and I was definitely interested in watching, but the amount of sexual content and other disturbing themes really put me off.”

Assad said that while some fans might argue that she didn’t get the “authentic” experience of watching the show, she feels much more comfortable knowing that she was able to bypass the more controversial themes and still manage to enjoy the show.

“I loved Game of Thrones because of the political intrigue, for the richness and depth of the lore and the history, because of the unexpected plot twists like the Red Wedding, for things such as the fashion and the set dressing. By removing the gratuitous sexual content and some of the more violent scenes, I don’t think I missed out on much,” she said.

A man stands atop the ancient fortress of Ait-ben-Haddou, where scenes depicting the fictional city of Yunkai from ‘Game of Thrones’ were filmed. (Getty Images)

The show has seen its fair share of controversy over the past decade. Despite the accolades heaped on the show, the amount of violence portrayed in the series, including the deaths of many innocents and children, the sexual content, and heavy themes such as incest and rape, have drawn much ire from fans and critics alike.

“I couldn’t make it past the first few episodes, honestly,” Talal Ashour, another Saudi fantasy fan, said. “I can understand the appeal, but to me Game of Thrones just crossed way too many boundaries. It’s a beautifully crafted show, and I’m still amazed by certain aspects of it, like the CGI dragons or the fact that they created a whole new language for the Dothraki, but I couldn’t get passed the darker aspects of the show.”

But perhaps the biggest let-down for fans of the series was the ending, which many fans believe was a massive disappointment and a departure from the grandeur of the previous seasons.

“Game of Thrones ended for me after Season 7,” Hussam said. “The more they started to deviate from the books, the less I started to enjoy it. I think the writers did fine when they had more content from the original books to work with, but once they started doing their own thing, it all just went downhill.”

Martin, notorious among fans for being slow to produce new novels, published the latest book in A Song of Ice and Fire in 2011, the same year the show began. Martin told the press at the time that the novel had taken six years to write, and that a sixth novel out of a planned seven, “The Winds of Winter,” was still in the works.

“I think the writers thought they could go off what they had and that the sixth book would be out by the time the series caught up,” Assad said. “It’s such a shame that they couldn’t or wouldn’t delay the series until the book came out. A lot of fans were unhappy with the way the series ended. I feel like we deserved better.”

Assad is not alone in that. A petition appealing to HBO with a request to remake the final season with “competent writers” began circulating online the day the final episode debuted, with almost 2 million people signing and the numbers still increasing two years later.

However, despite the controversies and the overall disappointment with the way the series ended, the show has retained a strong fanbase in the Middle East.

“I had a Game of Thrones-themed birthday party in 2019,” Hussam said. “I dressed up as Daenerys, all of my friends came in costume, and my cake was a replica of the box that held Dany’s dragon eggs in it, including three edible cake eggs. It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“I don’t think one bad season can ruin the whole series,” said Assad. “Even if the ending was disappointing, the other seasons are still incredible to behold. Maybe in time I’ll be able to go back and watch the show and enjoy it even more. And if the ending still disappoints me after the second time, I can always hold out hope for ‘The Winds of Winter.’”

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
Updated 16 April 2021

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream

Meet the Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess living out his Disney dream
  • Louaye Moulayess on why ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is his most personal project yet

DUBAI: Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess was born and raised in a divided nation. With Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon,” his latest major project, he had the chance to tell the story of a fictional land not unlike his own, and to lay out a path forward for how it may be united again.

“When I saw the screening of the film, I realized what the movie is about: It's about trust and what we can do if people come together. Coming from the Middle East, I really like that,” Moulayess tells Arab News. “You see all these different lands inspired from countless places, and basically you see them individually. But if they are so beautiful individually, what can they do if they come together?

Louaye Moulayess is a Lebanese animator. (Supplied)

“That message resonates a lot with me coming from Lebanon, as all this especially applies to Lebanon,” he continues. “I was really proud to be part of something that just tells that story. I like that message. I know It sounds simple, but if we can just show this to kids and families, for me, that would make me happy.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, is set in the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, which is not based on the Middle East, but Southeast Asia. In this fantasy version of that region, humans and dragons once lived in harmony, before mistrust and political division tore the kingdom apart, causing the dragons to disappear and chaos to ensue. The film follows a princess named Raya who sets off on an adventure to unite the kingdom and bridge the gaps between the various warring factions.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is Moulayess’s latest major project. (Supplied)

Moulayess wants people in the Middle East watching the movie to apply the film’s message of togetherness and collaboration not only to politics, however, but to all aspects of life.

“It applies especially to Lebanon, but I don’t want just that. Yes, you can apply this politically, but you can also apply this to your (apartment) complex, you know what I mean? It can be global, but you can also apply it to your circle of friends. This is the appeal for me. It doesn't have to be political. It doesn't have to be big,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess himself started small — growing up primarily in the Lebanese village of Elissar. From a young age, sitting on the couch with his brothers and sisters, Moulayess fell in love with Disney movies, and saw their ability to convey a powerful message. He knew, even back then, that was what he wanted to do with his life.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada. (Supplied)

“I felt something good. I'm like, ‘I want to be part of this.’ That was the first step. The problem was, I didn't see anybody do art (among) my family and friends. So I started doing computer science. And since there was starting to be computer animation, I said, ‘Maybe I can do something with the computer.’ I did computer science for a year. Didn't work. I didn't like it. It wasn't for me, basically,” says Moulayess.

Moulayess started researching, trying to figure out how he could get from his small village on the Western edge of the Mediterranean to the halls of Disney or Pixar on the other side of the world.

One day, he stumbled upon someone who could possibly help him, an animator at Pixar in San Francisco. Overcoming his nervousness, he decided to send him a message out of the blue.

Moulayess worked on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2.” (Supplied)

“I was around 16 or 17. I emailed him and said, ‘Listen, I'm from Lebanon, this is the situation: I want to do animation. Can you help me?’ He was very kind, he replied right away. He told me, ‘Since you don't have a portfolio, try to go to this animation school in San Francisco. It’s expensive, so you’re going to have to have a job on the side.’ He just gave me a lot of good advice. And it's because of him that I made the decision to go to that school specifically,” says Moulayess.

When he’d completed his studies, he managed to land an internship at the place he had been dreaming of: Pixar.

“And guess who my mentor was? It was that animator. I said, ‘Hey, I want to show you something.’ I showed him the email I sent him when I was 16. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I'm here because of you.’ And it was honestly a great moment. It was like everything had aligned to have him as my mentor.”

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. (Supplied)

Moulayess went from working on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios, working on the “Ice Age” films, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Ferdinand,” before finding a home at Disney, first animating “Frozen 2” before taking on “Raya and the Last Dragon.” At Disney, Moulayess is not only able to add his own voice to the legacy of the greatest animation studio in history, he’s also able to thrive precisely because of his background and perspective.

“I'm very proud to be here because of the diversity that they try to push every single day,” he says. “They understand that diversity will bring more to the table. I grew up in Lebanon, and I saw movies that maybe somebody else didn't see or shows that somebody else didn't see, I read books, I saw Arabic calligraphy, I saw my culture, and I have stories to tell that my gym teacher used to tell me from the village where he grew up. I mean, who else has that stuff?

Moulayess worked on “Cars 2” at Pixar to Blue Sky Studios. (Supplied)

“At the studio, the chief creatives understand it's in their best interest to bring diversity because it means more stories, more personality. I think studios around the world are starting to understand this as well,” he continues.

In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which he considers his most personal project among the 15 films he has so far worked on, he was able to put himself in the film a little more literally than you may imagine. In fact, one of the most memorable bit characters in the film was entirely Moulayess’ creation.

“I'm gonna give you my process,” he says. “Basically, I get asked to do shots. And for fun ones, I like to shoot references of myself in the room. I put a tripod, and I just act out the performance as much as I can. I'm a terrible actor, but I try to hit the beats that I want to hit. There’s one character holding flowers who has a very comedic moment in the film. I feel it's me, I put myself in this character. I shot the references. The directors, Don and Carlos, were laughing for, say, two to three minutes. That made me happy. They said, ‘Do exactly that.’ So I animated him exactly to my reference video. I feel that it's me in the screen.”

Moulayess smiles. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m incredibly lucky.”

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air
Updated 16 April 2021

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air

REVIEW: Superhero comedy ‘Thunder Force’ is a lot of hot air
  • Netflix’s all-star movie has more holes than a supervillain’s scheme

LONDON: Back in January, when Netflix dropped a star-studded teaser trailer for its 2021 film slate, one of the most enticing snippets was for “Thunder Force” — a superhero buddy comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as a crime-fighting duo determined to clean up the mean streets of Chicago. The brief glimpses promised a self-aware nod to big-budget, special-effects-heavy blockbusters, but with a family-friendly air and a supporting cast with serious comedy chops (Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale and Pom Klementieff).

Sadly, if you saw that trailer, then you’ve seen most of the movie’s best bits already. The central premise of “Thunder Force” offers up the chance of a very different, very funny take on the superhero genre. Rough-around-the-edges forklift operator Lydia (McCarthy) is visiting her overachieving, estranged best friend Emily (Spencer) and accidentally sets off a machine in the latter’s lab, granting herself the power of superstrength that Emily had been developing for five years. After the obligatory training montage (Emily has the power to turn invisible), the pair must reconcile and protect Chicago from the ‘Miscreants’ — villains with superpowers — terrorizing the population.

“Thunder Force” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone serves as writer and director (the fifth time he has helmed a movie starring his wife), but can’t seem to get past low-brow physical comedy into anything more substantial. With the genre so overpopulated by the (mostly) very good Marvel movies, “Thunder Force” needed to be smart, funny and different if it was to stand out. It’s none of those things.

McCarthy and Spencer do have decent chemistry, but the script serves as little more than a string of opportunities for McCarthy to do impressions, overly labored running gags, (literal) toilet humor, or simply crude crotch jokes. Klementieff, at least, has some fun as powerful miscreant Laser, and Cannavale goes full pantomime baddie as The King, but it’s tough to imagine what convinced Netflix regular Bateman to say yes to the role of pincer-armed henchman The Crab. It’s a character that bears more than a few similarities to the movie as a whole: not especially funny, not really dark – just bafflingly weird.