Category: Foreign Comedies


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Political satire/topical humor is tricky to pull off. It’s a topic I’ve discussed on this blog in the past (my review of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is what springs to mind), but it bears repeating again here. Thankfully, 1963’s The Mouse on the Moon is a fairly intentionally light-hearted affair although that doesn’t make it especially funny. The Mouse on the Moon deals with the insanity surrounding the space race in the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the nuclear arms race), and while it managed to make me chuckle on several occasions, mostly the film left me bored and perusing Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, my inability to connect with the film is related to the fact that it’s a sequel to Peter Seller’s The Mouse That Roared which I’ve never seen, and since that film isn’t on my list on this blog, I didn’t really feel the urge to put the effort into watching it since, as I understood it, the film’s were mostly separate (which was thankfully true). I don’t think it impacted my review but my integrity as a critic means I should probably make that point clear. This film could have definitely used the talents of Peter Sellers because if any man is a one-person comic powerhouse, it’s him.

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The Mouse on the Moon centers around the tiny, fictional European nation of Grand Fenwick. They are, to quote the film, Europe’s smallest and least progressive nation, and though the film takes place in the present, Grand Fenwick does not even have indoor plumbing (though it has beatniks…). Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Ron Moody) comes up with a brilliant scheme to bring money to Fenwick’s coffers. He will ask the U.S. for funds to put a man on the moon but instead use it for Fenwick’s own needs. What Mountjoy doesn’t expect is when Fenwick finds itself at the very center of the space race as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hope to use Fenwick to outmaneuver the other.

Conceptually, it’s actually kind of a funny idea. The idea that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both so sure of Fenwick’s incompetency (and yeah, the nation was not actually capable of making a rocket [though the film comes up with a funny deus ex machina there]) that they gave the nation money just to increase their standing in the international community actually seems kind of possible back in Cold War hysteria. And when the British too try to uncover what’s happening and send the bumbling Maurice Spender (How to Murder Your Wife‘s Terry-Thomas) to investigate, the international incident that begins to spiral out of control had potential.

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Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its potential and mostly the film is yawn-inducing. Terry-Thomas’s presence in the film was far too brief because he was clearly the best comic actor in the film. Bernard Cribbins got some laughs as the Prime Minister’s son who dreams of actually being an astronaut, but he has to make do with material that’s sadly hit or miss. It wasn’t that the film is bad (and you may get that impression from the score I’ll be giving it); it was just entirely forgettable. I watched the film yesterday and though the plot and stray observations have stuck, nothing substantive from the film remains.

Final Score: C+

 

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One of the most intriguing aspects of running this blog that I’ve discovered over the course of the last year is the opportunity to see two movies from a writer-director that are so thematically and stylistically different that you would never have believed they were from the same person if you didn’t already know it to be a fact. Try comparing a movie like Match Point (a crime thriller) from Woody Allen to one of his absurdist comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or one of his more serious dramedies like Manhattan. Similarly, how did David Lean go from making a small, quiet romance like Summertime and then head on out and make Lawrence of Arabia (I actually don’t remember which film is older and I’m too lazy to look it up right now). Well, British director Mike Leigh gets to join the ranks of directors who works I’ve reviewed for this blog are radically different from one another. The last film I watched of Mike Leigh’s was the period abortion drama Vera Drake which was heartbreakingly sad and depressing. His Golden Globe-winning 2008 comedyHappy-Go-Lucky may not be quite as joyful as its title or protagonist let on and was a serious case of mood whiplash from Leigh’s other more serious films.

In Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Golden Globe winning Sally Hawkins) is a frighteningly cheerful and optimistic woman. If you took every quirky “indie” rom-com heroine and put them in a blender, you still wouldn’t have a character as odd and bizarre as Poppy. An elementary school teacher, Poppy would ride her back to school everyday, but when it’s stolen (which doesn’t seem to ruin her good cheer one bit), she has to learn to drive and hires Scott (Sherlock Holmes‘s Eddie Marsan), a misogynistic, racist and angry man, to be her instructor. Poppy’s buoyant and endless energy and warmth immediately create tension between her and the always glum (if not straight out furious) Scott. However, when Poppy begins to date a social worker who visited her classroom to help one of her students who had been violently acting out, Scott becomes jealous and all of the anger and rage he had been bottling up has the potential to explode on Poppy who would never intentionally harm any living creature (not even the slightest of exaggeration). Along the way, we see Poppy with her best-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) as Poppy weaves her way in and out of different people’s lives in a state of pure, uncorrupted bliss.

Sally Hawkins gave one of the most unique and eclectic performances I’ve ever witnessed as Poppy. As much as I love films like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer), their leads are only slightly eccentric and perhaps flirting with quirky. Poppy borders on being mentally unstable. She is truly just a one-of-a-kind creation that makes Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel look boring in comparison. Had it not been for Sally Hawkins as Poppy, there’s a chance this film would have been borderline unwatchable because Poppy was just so strange that it would have been too easy to “Hollywood”-ize her character, to make it too theatrical. Yet despite being such a content and cheerful person, Hawkins managed to keep her characterization in the realm of reality and though she spent much of the film in the midst of one giggle fit after another, there were moments when Hawkins managed to give Poppy some depths that hinted that perhaps this facade was just to protect her from something much harder and more painful. Somehow even more impressive than Sally Hawkins was Eddie Marsan as Scott. There was so much vitriolic hate and rage in the moments when he suffered one of his many breakdowns that I honestly feared for Poppy’s safety and thought that I would never want to piss Eddie Marsan off in real life because he sold the anger and fury so well. Once again, he managed to make a character like Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth that was fueled on pure anger without making it seem over-the-top or campy which lesser actors would have failed at accomplishing.

The process by which Mike Leigh makes his movies is almost self-evident in the very natural and realistic sounding nature of the dialogue that pops off of every scene. Rather than writing actual dialogue, his films are largely improved during extensive rehearsal sessions which then result in the actual dialogue being used in the film eventually coming around so it can be practiced. This is not a plot-driven film, and rather a series of vignettes where we get intimate and detailed looks at Poppy’s life (as well as that of her close circle of friends) and are able to see just how someone like Poppy would ever be able to operate in our modern, cynical world. Because there is very little in the way of plot (other than Poppy’s ultimate confrontation with Scott), the first half of the film will likely result in viewer wondering what in the hell type of movie they are watching because even by film’s end, you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the “point” of the film. However, the last half is over-loaded with compelling episodes that really flesh out Poppy, and whether it’s her interactions with a homeless man, being lectured by her sister about “growing up”, or finally going toe to toe with Scott, we really get to see that there’s more going on in Poppy’s brain than her cheerful demeanor lets on.

If you require your non-plot driven films to have a “point” or some grand statement about life in order to be worthwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky will not be for you. I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to parse out exactly what the film means, and I’m still unable to come up with a definitive answer other than a quiet look at one truly bizarre woman’s life as she tries to find her own happiness and bring smiles to the lives of others. It’s so sharp and insightful into this personality that I suspect that there are perhaps very British commentaries about British society that I am missing out on as an American, but I can’t help if I don’t quite grasp the inner-workings of a very particular subset of British society. For all fans of British humor and fine acting, Happy-Go-Lucky will satisfy you on both fronts and perhaps inspire the same level of introspection in you as it inspired in me. This is a film that I feel I will appreciate after more viewings and after I’ve had the chance to wrestle more with its subtleties and subtext. Go ahead and acquaint yourself with Poppy. Methinks you won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: B+

La Chevre

When I think of French cinema, I think of the stylistic boundary-pushing of Jean-Luc Godard, the action films of Luc Besson, and films with sexual content that toes the line between artistic and pornography. I don’t usually think of slapstick buddy comedies. Well, leave it to my French roommate to show me that there is more to French cinema than high-brow arthouse films. I have two foreign roommates (one French, a guy, and one Japanese, a girl) that are both in their early 30’s. My French roommate and I had already bonded over Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, and since I often feel like I hog the TV in the living room of our apartment (even though it’s my television, I still like to share), I let my roommate pick a movie for us to watch last night, and he picked the French comedy La Chevre (which translates to The Goat), starring French film icon, Gerard Depardieu. It wasn’t the best comedy I’ve ever seen but if you’re a fan of slapstick and buddy cop films, you may find yourself enjoying quite a few chuckles thanks to La Chevre.

When the daughter of a wealthy industrialist is kidnapped (this is beginning to sound like the intro to either of my Girl With the Dragon Tattoo reviews), her father hires private investigator Campana (Gerard Depardieu) to find her. The daughter is catastrophically unlucky, and the industrialist believes that the only way they’ll be able to find her (since Campana spent 42 days in Mexico searching for her to no avail) is to pair Campana with someone as unlucky as the industrialist’s daughter. Thus, they find Francois Perrin (Pierre Richard), an accountant working in the financial department of the company, and the only person on the planet who may be as clumsy and accident prone as the industrialist’s daughter. So, Campana and Francois set off to Mexico to find the daughter while Francois causes a tornado’s worth of damage and injury to himself and everyone around him as the slowly inch closer and closer to finding the daughter.

I had never seen a Gerard Depardieu film before this (unless you count his smaller English speaking role in The Man in the Iron Mask), and while I’m not really sure what the big deal about him is other than his massive nose, he was a well-cast straight man to the more obvious comic relief of Pierre Richard. Pierre Richard reminded me of what Peter Seller’s Inspector Clousseau would have been like had Peter Sellers actually been French, and I can easily see where The Pink Panther films had an influence on this movie. Pierre Richard was quite skilled at more physical humor and despite the broad nature of most of the physical humor in the film, he also had a great deadpan delivery for most of his jokes. The movie didn’t always make me laugh, and at times, it felt like it was just meant to be a vehicle for promoting Gerard Depardieu’s tough-guy image that is his thing in France, but when it did hit the right notes, it was a great example of foreign slapstick.

La Chevre is far from the best French film I’ve seen, but it’s not the worst, and it certainly isn’t the most boring, but if you liked the buddy cop movies of the 1980’s like 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Beverly Hills Cop, you’ll probably find something to like about La Chevre. Gerard Depardieu is a French film legend, and while I don’t yet understand why that’s the case and I wish that my first exposure to his acting had been in one of his more iconic roles/films, he did a good job and Pierre Richard was an underappreciated comic delight. My roommate tells me that the two were in a series of movies like this during the 80’s so maybe at some point I’ll watch a couple more of them. Anyways, if you only ever thought the French made serious movies, check out La Chevre to see that they can tickle your funny bone just as much as your artsy sides.

Final Score: B-

There’s a website that I like to visit called TVTropes.org that is sort of the wikipedia of popular culture and the conventions used for creating fiction in all of its mediums. One of the tropes they discuss is a phenomenon known as “Poe’s Law” which states that “a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody.” Try to say something so extreme on any internet forum where you can only possibly be joking but say it completely straight and see just how many people think you’re being serious. I’m bringing this up because the film I just watched, Chris Morris’ brilliant political satire Four Lions is a scathing indictment of fanaticism as well as the way that western conservatives see all Muslims. If you don’t come into this film as a liberal or someone who at least knows a little bit about Muslim culture (which this film intentionally doesn’t portray accurately at all), this film could end up negatively reinforcing some false and awful stereotypes you have about Muslims and the Islamic faith. For every one else in the audience who will get that this is a comedy and satire, this is one of the best political satires I’ve seen since In the Loop, another hilarious British satire I watched in this blog’s original format.

Four Lions is a brilliant send-up of the notion of “home-grown” terrorists and chronicles the incompetent exploits of five British Muslims who believe that they are al-Qaeda jihadists ready to martyr themselves for their beliefs. Omar (The Road to Guantanamo‘s Riz Ahmed) is the group’s ring-leader and is joined by his dim-witted friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), the boisterous Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the paranoid Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), and the newest recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali). Over the course of the film, these “Lions” bungle their way through one failed mission after another, whether this is going to Afghanistan and accidentally killing Osama bin Laden, having one of their members blow up on accident while running through a sheep field strapped with explosives, and generally making complete fools of themselves. They only want to be martyrs and go to paradise but when they can’t even think to buy the materials for their homemade explosives from more than one store, their heavenly reward of virgins is going to be much harder to come by than they had planned on.

This film is legitimately laugh-out-loud hilarious. I haven’t heard this much cursing in a British film since the last time I watched In the Loop‘s profanity laden monologues from Malcolm Tucker (seriously watch that clip. it might not make any sense out of context if you haven’t seen the film, but if you have, you’ll laugh your ass off again). These men were just so unbelievably bad at being terrorists. Omar is supposed to be the most level-headed and intelligent person in the group, but he was the one who fired the bazooka the wrong way and killed Osama bin Laden (this film came out before his actual death). It viciously mocks the way that people use ideology to manipulate and corrupt harmless religions and harmless people. Waj isn’t a bad guy; he’s simply being dragged along by Barry and Omar because he’s too dumb to make any decisions for himself. No one comes out unscathed from this film’s unflinching eye for humor and biting social commentary. This film shouldn’t offend any Muslims or any intelligent people. The only people that may take it the wrong way would be those that aren’t smart enough to figure out what it was about in the first place.

As long as you can hear the phrase “comedy about terrorists” and not cringe or immediately begin making moral approbations, then I’d recommend taking this film for a drive. It’s smart, hilarious, and it even makes you think. There are certainly people out there that it may offend, but if you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, this movie should be easy enough to handle. This is dark comedy, not at it’s darkest (that award certainly goes to Happiness) but perhaps at its most outrageous. With a great cast, great gags, and some gutbusting set pieces, Four Lions was a remarkable debut from a British talent who is sure to make a name for himself in British comedy.

Final Score: A-

Watching this blog affords me the opportunity to watch a large number of movies that I would have never seen before, and quite often, those films turn to out to be spectacular movies that I would have been sad to miss if I had known how good they were. The Girl With the Pistol is not one of those movies. In fact, it’s easily a movie that I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing and I regret the loss of nearly two hours of my life that I spent watching this film. To be completely honest, after about an hour, I stopped watching it solely and began looking over my Netflix queue praying that the next films on my list will be more interesting than this film. While a glaring and technical problem (that I’ll get to shortly) caused some of my vast irritation, it was mostly that this was an incredibly boring and unfunny movie that I really wish hadn’t been on my list.

The plot of the film is such. Asunta is a young and beautiful Sicilian woman (she looks like a Sicilian Barbara Streisand) who is kidnapped by local mafiosi Maccaluso Vincenzo whose cronies think she is a different woman. They have sex on the promise that Vincenzo will marry Asunta. However, Vincenzo flees the next morning to England. In order to reclaim her lost honor, Asunta follows him with the titular pistol hoping to kill him. Nothing funny happens the whole film. God it was so boring. Also, for God knows what reason, this film was dubbed. So it was like watching a cheesy kung fu without the awesome kung fu. The only reason this isn’t getting a straight F is the possibility that the terrible dub job covered up good writing in the original Italian. Otherwise, this film has legitimately no redeeming factors and is easily the worst film that I’ve watched for this blog and one of the worst movies that I ever watched.

Final Score: D

It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie like this. As a matter of fact, the last movie I saw that as anything like this was my last Luis Buñuel picture, Belle de Jour, except that the movie I just finished, 1961’s Viridiana is superior to it in practically every way. Like I said though, it’s been a good long while since I watched a film that was just crammed full of esoteric symbolism and extremely high-brow (and delightfully blasphemous) social commentary. It would appear that much like Fellini (whose La Strada was simply an appetizer for the main course of Fellini Satyricon), Buñuel gave me the less than satisfying Belle de Jour to make me completely blown away by the viciously comedic satire that is Viridiana. I honestly did not particularly want to watch this movie when I put it in my PS3 because its story as described by its Netflix blurb sounded dreadfully dull. Simply put, I was wrong.

At its core, Viridiana is the story of the titular main character, a young woman who is about to take her final vows to become a nun. Viridiana receives a letter from her uncle, Don Jaime, to visit his estate one last time before she takes her vows. Viridiana bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Jaime’s late wife and because of this, Don Jaime is preternaturally infatuated with Viridiana. Don Jaime sets out on a course to corrupt the pious Viridiana so that she will turn her back on her holy vows and become his wife. This is only the first third of the movie however, as the last 2/3 are devoted to what I consider to be the real heart of the film, but to examine that plot would be to give away the end of the first act which I will refrain from doing. Needless to say, the movie goes to some really interesting places.

One of the central themes of the film is the absurdity of both religion and extreme piety. Because of the manner in which young Viridiana lives and holds herself and especially considering the state of Don Jaime’s manse, you’d be forgiven for believing that the film takes place in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. However, it takes place in the modern day of when it was filmed, so the early 1960’s. You slowly get hints at that throughout the whole film, but when you hear a rock and roll song playing on the radio at the deeply symbolic ending, it strikes you at how absurd it is that Viridiana has been living her life like a relic from another age. Viridiana is the heroine of the film, but Buñuel does not spare her suffering the vast majority of the satirical blows of the film. Eventually, Viridiana takes a flock of beggars under her wings as at attempt to rehabilitate their vices and sins that got them in that mess. It goes hilariously wrong for Viridiana, although one scene becomes especially dark and horrific, but that simply serves to hammer the final nail in the message of the film.

Special props must be given to Buñuel’s cinematography which is simply superb. Not since La Strada have I seen a black and white film with such beautiful photography and gorgeous and original shots. I’m a tried and true cinephile, and while I’ve probably run the gamut of interesting and original stories, one of my new favorite pleasures of watching movies is discovering true masters behind the camera. Out of the films I’ve reviewed for this blog, this definitely has one of the five best black and white cinematography jobs that I’ve seen. Only Manhattan, The Shop on Main Street, and La Strada readily spring to mind as peers. Also, Sylvia Pinel was a pure delight as the main character and the ordeals that she faces throughout the whole film are great opportunities for Pinel to shine.

If you are especially religious and can’t take any criticisms of faith or the basic tenets of your dogma, you should probably not watch this. If you’re an atheist or able to poke a little fun at yourself, then this is simply a great film. While it’s not, over-all, as great a foreign feature as Ran, The Shop on Main Street, or Fellini Satyricon, it’s still an exceptional piece of satire that shouldn’t be missed by those craving a little bit of the surreal. As I understand it, this is actually one of Buñuel’s most straight-forward films, so even if you’re slightly put off by my classification of this movie as art house, don’t let that scare you away. I actually believe it’s fairly accessible if you have the patience for it.

Final Score: A-

Pedro Almodovar is one of the big, big stars of modern foreign cinema, and along with names like Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, he is one of the serious auteurs showing why Spanish language cinema is, in my opinion, the the king of foreign cinema. If there is one over-riding theme of Almodovar’s films, it is to show strong women. His understated meditation on the lengths that women will go to protect their family is no exception and with 2006’s Volver, Pedro added another great film to his repertoire.

Volver follows the story of two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz in one of the best roles of her career) and Soledad (Lola Duenas). One night, Raimunda’s daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), kills her father in self defense because the father was trying to rape her. The film chronicles her attempts to cover up the murder and protect her family. Also, to complicate matters, the ghost of Raimunda’s mother appears to Soledad wanting forgiveness for prior misdeeds. I won’t give away any more of the plot because part of the joy of the film is unraveling the many different story threads and seeing how they all come tumbling back towards each other.

The film’s title is very significant. “Volver” means “to return” in Spanish and is also the title of a traditional Spanish song that Penelope sings later in the film. One of the main themes of the film is returning back to the past, whether that past is family or past trauma or simply memories. It also refers to how the past returns to the present and perhaps we are all just living in the cycle that others have lived for thousands of years. This is an artistic and symbolic film and a lot of pleasure can be gained from picking apart the themes and different little meanings hidden within. Hell, the opening shot of a large group of widows cleaning their own future graves helps to reinforce the fatalistic nature of the film.

The acting in the film is stellar. Penelope Cruz is incredibly irritating in English-speaking roles but when she acts in her native tongue, she is a stellar and beautiful actress. I can definitely see why she was nominated for an Oscar for this film. Carmen Maura was also scene-stealing as the mother. If you can handle an under-stated family dramedy, you should really check this out.

Final Score: A-