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SLOW-BURNING SURREALISM: Austin filmmaker Steve Collins’ vignettes are bizarre in a good way

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Dark and absurd, Austin filmmaker Steve Collins’ “I’ve Got Issues” is a dreamy, dreary meditation on daily despair, engaging all our senses—especially our sense of humor. Pushing every joke to its extreme, like a dark comedy sketch gone arthouse, the storyline is told in a series of titled chapters, vignettes narrated by comedian Jim Gaffigan. It features an indie all-star ensemble, playing different characters throughout the film, which results in a set of tales loosely linked by tone and concept, slowly orbiting around and toward a shared climax.

The movie’s moody lyricism and twisted sense of humor benefit hugely from beautiful, thoughtful production design: The sets are visually layered in color and shape, the frame sparse but loaded with meaning and emotion. Its minimalism pays off gorgeously for the story, giving each joke the space to land and move around, and morph into something edifying or deeply unsettling. The cinematography is also tied in just as tightly with the humor of the film: long shots, off-kilter angles, low cameras. Each intelligent detail is thick with  an edgy, creeping sense we are in a world that is slightly off the rails.

The performances here, always boosted by anachronistic Midwestern wardrobe, are spectacularly understated, often warm and gentle and oddly delivered. They are can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it good because everyone is making stylistic choices that are bizarre. Viewers will not want to miss a move from anyone. It’s nonstop: I’ve watched the film three times now and I’m still catching lines and visuals. So much eye candy is in this sparse but sumptuous set and it offers great visual puns. It’s a space for these performances to expand, blossom and curdle. Collins rounded up his favorite players from films like “Gretchen” and “You Hurt My Feelings,” including but not limited to the great Paul Gordon, Claire Titelman, Courtney Davis, and John Merriman. They’re each a wonder at sloshing through changing tides of emotionality, extremism, absurdity and the all mighty joke.

From stories about the end of the world, to pet deaths and suicide, this slow-burning film leans into surrealism in style, tone, and texture. Some jokes are played out until they’re absolutely grating on the viewer’s nerves, as viewers await the punchline, the sweet release. In the case of “I’ve Got Issues,” that release is often death.

For all the grim pain and end-of-the-world implosions, it’s not a sad movie. There is absolute humanity in it, which is—as we all know—intrinsically linked with hope. The best moments in the film are shared pain, the connection that flows in the veins beneath the skin. In “I’ve Got Issues,” that means being absolutely tortured.

In “Please Help Griselda,” a woman shows up at another’s door, mute, her face screwed into an expression of wild discomfort. We don’t know what’s happening and neither does our friend who opens the door, but she sees her anguish and begins to ask a series of questions: “Can I help you with something? Do you need help? Have you been in some sort of accident? Are you disoriented? Have you lost someone recently? Someone close to you? Are you lonely?”

She goes on, gently asking question after question without an answer, and it becomes apparent everyone needs to be asked these questions every day. Everyday people and pets and landlords and ex-lovers are dying;  the ocean’s polluted; we can’t pay our student loans. The list of secret pains goes on and on, ad infinitum, for us all.

The woman’s distorted face becomes a blank canvas for the chaos that everyone is facing, delivered in odd tones on shifting sands, this film’s ultimate joke building,  sounding something like, “Well, we’re all effed but at least we’re effed together,” best expressed in the movie’s last line. Each character walks toward a mushroom cloud of fire and smoke in the distance. “It is not all darkness. And you are not alone. Reach toward the light.”

I’ve Got Issues
Thursday, November 14, 1 p.m.
Saturday, November 16, 1 p.m.
Thalian Main, 301 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $15

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