comedy

The Lobster

The Lobster made me think of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi short stories I read as a teenager, where some “what if” premise would be taken to an absurd extreme, except that this movie does it with an extra helping of bonkers. If you’re a fan of out-there scenarios, the summary should grab you instantly. Here goes: in the dystopian world of The Lobster, it’s illegal to be single. If you’re divorced, widowed or just unattached, you get sent to a high-security hotel in the countryside, where you have 45 days to find a new partner among the fellow singles. Those who fail to pair up are then turned into an animal of their choice and remain that way for the rest of their lives. David (Colin Farrell), the main hero of the film, tells the manager of the hotel that he’d like to cast his lot with the crustaceans, and be turned into a lobster. Lobsters, he says, can live for hundred years, and he quite enjoys swimming.

The absurdity doesn’t stop here. In this society, people believe that the only way to find a suitable partner is a perfect match-up of a single defining attribute. Thus, a person suffering from a nosebleed must be paired up with another similarly afflicted person. If a single is desperate enough, they might fake an attribute. Once in a while, the hotel bus takes the “guests” on a trip to the woods where they hunt for rogue singles with stun guns; for each captured single you get an extra day reprieve.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a group of militant Loners, who live in the nearby woods. Ruled by the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux in a frightening and charismatic performance), their society is just as cruel and authoritarian, punishing those who form romantic relationships or even attempt any kind of flirtation. They dig their own graves to spare others the effort of burial, and organize silent disco parties where each Loner dances to their own electronic music with the headphones on. After failing to make himself fit in at the hotel, David falls in with the Loners, and begins a forbidden affair with another Loner, called The Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).

This movie is… an acquired taste. For the first half an hour or so, I found it extremely grating and pretty much everything about it got on my nerves: the narration, obnoxious use of slo-mo, artificial dialogue and emotionless line deliveries (very much deliberately so, but still), the whole look at me, look at me, I’m different and quirkyyyyy. A bit like Wes Anderson movies minus the whimsy, pastel colours and visual splendour. Also, I think I’m over the cliché of setting dark and violent scenes against a charming and lighthearted soundtrack. I think the only reason I kept on watching was to find out what weirdness the movie was going to throw at me next.

While I hesitate to say that I loved the movie in the end, its peculiar approach did sink in after a while and I could appreciate it more. Colin Farrell is excellent as the sad-sack protagonist, and eventually I got invested in David’s fate and his love life. The movie is clearly making fun of our society’s obsession with coupledom and the rigid rituals of dating; is it really an issue that needed to be highlighted with a pitch-black satire? Maybe not, but I’m happy to have watched this oddity.

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The Intouchables

A charming feel-good French drama/comedy about an unlikely friendship, The Intouchables is maybe not the most original film ever and doesn’t dig into its premise all that deeply, but it remains irresistible thanks to the exuberant lead performances and the film’s belief in the power of human empathy and resilience.

Based on a true story, it centres on the relationship between Philippe (François Cluzet), an enormously wealthy middle-aged man rendered immobile from neck down after an accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), a young immigrant from Senegal who becomes his caretaker. In the beginning of the film, Driss, recently released from prison for theft, shows up at Philippe’s Versaille-like mansion for the caretaker job interview, not because he’s genuinely interested in the position but because he’s after a formal rejection that will help him collect unemployment benefits. Driss is rude and crude to everyone in the room, tries to hit on Philippe’s lovely secretary, and pinches a Faberge egg on his way out, but his vitality and don’t-give-a-damn attitude paradoxically win over Philippe, who above all wants a caretaker that won’t pity him. The arrangement also works well for Driss, since he’s kicked out of his home by the family’s matriarch after she gets fed up with his disappearances and criminal ways.

Since the two men take to each other straight away, their relationship is more about mining comedy from their culture clash, and exploring the ways they manage to impact each other’s lives. These are mostly predictable (cultured Philippe loves opera but streetwise Driss thinks it’s boring as batshit!) and, at least on one occasion, stretching believability. Also, some of the transitions between the film’s vignettes and subplots are handled a tad too abruptly. But none of these really detract from the film, and Sy’s charisma helps Driss get away with the humour at the expense of Philippe’s condition that often comes close to bad taste. The film makes it clear that, despite the obvious social and cultural discrepancies between the two men, this love of irreverence is their common ground, and their bond is truly moving. It helps that Sy and Cluzet bounce off each other so well as actors, with Sy’s freewheeling energy and physicality, and Cluzet’s restrained performance, where he can only express himself with his face and voice. The French love their odd couple movies, and they do them well.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

This movie is just as entertaining and smartass as its title suggests. Penned and directed by Shane Black, who did The Nice Guys, another highly entertaining buddy/neo-noir comedy from last year, it similarly dances on the right side of knowing and snarky, and features another odd couple and much riffing on the noir detective tropes. It’s also a sign of being on the other side of 35 that this movie turned out to be twice as old as I thought it was. I could swear it was maybe six years old, but nope it was released in 2005.

The movie’s narrator, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), is a small-time crook turned accidental actor, after he happens to literally run into an audition while being chased by the police. This leads him to the bad, mad world of Hollywood, where he’s told to team up with the tough-guy private detective Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), also known as Gay Perry, who is supposed to help him prepare for his screen test. Harry also runs into his childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), in town to, gasp shock, chase the movie star dream. One night, as Harry follows Perry on an assignment, they land in a middle of a lurid Chandler-esque murder mystery – a dead body of a young woman which later turns up in Harry’s own apartment. In another plot thread, Harmony begs Harry to help investigate the mystery of her sister’s apparent suicide, after mistaking him for a real deal detective.

It’s just as well that I didn’t watch the movie at the cinema, because it moves fast and I lost the track of the labyrinthine plot on a few occasions, even though it all comes together and makes sense in the end. Also, Robert Downey Jr. might possess preternatural onscreen charisma, but clear diction is not his strongest suit. Somebody, get him a Professor Higgins! Even with the benefit of the subtitles, the plot developments, snappy dialogue, one-liners and visual gags rush at the viewer at a breakneck speed with barely time to digest it all, which, on the plus side, I suspect makes the film all the more rewatchable.

And, despite a few huh wait what moments, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a total blast and pleasure to watch, funny, cleverly written and with fabulous, enthusiastic performances from all three leads. It has cheeky meta fun commenting on noir clichés and playing around with the narration, with Harry frequently addressing the audience, “rewinding” the scenes to run through a forgotten detail, lamenting his own poor storytelling skills, admitting a cheap cop-out to the story, and testily reminding that he’s the only narrator we have. The movie is also peppered with zany, wrong-but-hilarious moments you’re unlikely to ever see in your average blockbuster, like Harry’s variation on the Russian roulette that goes spectacularly wrong. It’s a shame that neither this nor The Nice Guys did well at the box-office.

Dr. Strangelove

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Finally got to watch the classic Stanley Kubrick political satire/black comedy about that most hilarious subject, the global nuclear holocaust.

So, during the 60s Cold War, a demented US general Jack Ripper decides to bypass those pesky politicians, and launch an unauthorised attack on the no-good Commies who poison the American population’s bodily fluids by adding fluoride to the water supply. The whole film takes place in pretty much three locations: an office where Ripper is locked together with Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a horrified British liaison; the interior of the B-52 bomber on its way to drop some nukes; and the famous War Room, where the President of the United States (Sellers again) and his advisors frantically try to stop the impending nuclear wipeout, with the help of the Soviet ambassador and a former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once again). The special effects of the plane “flying” over Russia are rather dated, but the War Room is honestly one of the most striking and iconic pieces of film set design, which most recently got a nod in Mathew Vaughn’s 60-s based X-Men: First Class.

I watched the making of documentary included in the extras afterwards, and incredibly this movie actually started out as completely straight and serious, before the writers turned it instead into a biting satire that finds the absurdity and humour in the most nightmarish and apocalyptic scenario, and the way a chain of seemingly logical decisions lead the humanity to a disastrous outcome. It’s a sort of comedy that elicits dry chuckles rather than laugh-out-loud reactions, but it’s undoubtedly filled with sharp writing and great comic performances. Peter Sellers’ triple turn is inspired, and Dr. Strangelove, who just can’t shake off his former Nazi habits, is a particularly grotesque creation. I had no idea that James Earl Jones was in the movie, and it was a bit disorienting to hear that instantly recognisable voice. If I closed my eyes, I’d be like, why does Darth Vader want to bomb the Soviet Union?

My only beef with the movie is, if Stanley Kubrick was such a total bloody-minded perfectionist, why is the Soviet ambassador’s “Russian” so godawful I could barely understand him when he supposedly speaks in his native tongue with the Soviet head of state? Alas, dodgy mangled Russian is everywhere, even in Stanley Kubrick movies.

Galaxy Quest

I’ve rewatched this 1999 gem which I haven’t seen in ages, and by Grabthar’s Hammer this affectionate parody/love letter to Star Trek and its fandom is still so wonderful and hilarious. It works fine as a regular comedy and is perfectly accessible even to people who don’t care about Star Trek, but it’s funnier if you’re familiar with the tropes the movie lampoons, like a redshirt who always dies in the first five minutes of the mission just before the commercial break.

The story is about a group of washed-up actors from a once-popular sci-fi TV series which doesn’t in any way resemble Star Trek at all, not with its cheesy rousing musical theme, alien make-up, technobabble and shaking the camera when the spaceship is “hit”. Almost 20 years later, its cast is stuck in professional limbo and make a living attending fan conventions and corporate events. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played the Captain Kirk-like commander of the NSEA Protector, is the only one who laps up the fans’ adoration like a rock star. He is much resented by the rest of the cast, especially Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a frustrated classically trained British actor who would rather jump off the bridge than say his alien character’s trademark catchphrase again. There’s also Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), the sole female cast member whose job on the show was to mindlessly repeat the ship’s computer, Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) as the chief engineer, and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) who was the show’s precocious and probably very annoying child pilot.

At one of the conventions, however, they’re approached by Thermians, who look like a bunch of cosplayers dressed as a fictional Star Trek race, but are in fact real aliens who mistook Galaxy Quest series for a genuine historical record since their kind has no concept of lies or fiction. They’ve come to beg the crew for assistance in their dealings with Sarris, a malevolent reptilian humanoid who looks like a Star Trek villain-of-the-week and is intent on wiping the Thermians out. The poor naive aliens have no clue that Nesmith and Co. are just actors who have no idea how to really fly a spaceship, transport matter or fight an evil space overlord. Along the way, they’re joined by Guy (Sam Rockwell), an actor whose sole brief appearance on the show was as the unnamed crew member that gets killed off, and who’s convinced that he’s a goner too now that the shit got real.

The cast here is an unexpected combo (Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen in the same movie?), but everyone, down to the smallest part, is simply pitch-perfect. I’ve never been a big fan of Tim Allen outside of his voice work for Pixar, but he’s an inspired choice to play the charismatic and egotistical character with a vulnerable side. Nesmith’s got a great redemptive arc as his character eventually rises to the level of heroism that his fictional counterpart had displayed on the show. Alan Rickman’s passing feels even sadder with this reminder of his magnificent onscreen voice and how much feeling and nuance he could inject into every line. No one portrayed withering contempt and dismay quite so hilariously. Sigourney Weaver is cleverly cast against the type, with a blond wig and the generous cleavage which, in one of the film’s in-jokes, gets uncovered more as the movie goes on. I don’t think she could ever play a total ditz, but it’s definitely a very different side revealed in this film. I could honestly just go on gushing forever about everyone in this movie, the cast is just that good.

The most endearing aspect of the film is the way it both sends up and celebrates the geek culture with tremendous affection, without condescending or pandering. I had to laugh that even the shipping phenomenon made it into the movie, with a flustered female fan at the convention asking Nesmith if there was “something” going on between the captain and Lt. Tawny Madison. There is a touch of the ridiculous about the grown men and women parading in silly costumes and obsessing over the tiniest bits of trivia, but in the end their love for this fictional world is vindicated and embraced. There’s also the idea that, no matter how cheesy the Galaxy Quest TV show was, its core ideals inspired an entire species to improve their lives. It’s a fantastic tribute to the optimism of Star Trek.

One last thing, the special effects look a tad dated in places, especially where space critters are concerned, but it’s really amazing how great the practical make-up effects still look.

The Big Lebowski

the-big-lebowski-1I didn’t get to see this Coen brothers cult comedy upon its release in 1998, partly because a film critic I more or less trusted gave it a tepid review – this was back in the dark ages of dial-up internet when I only just tiptoed into the world of online film criticism. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t watch it then, because it took me a while to really “get” the Coens and their brand of offbeat humour. I remember watching Fargo and thinking, meh I can’t see what the fuss was all about, whereas now I’d probably appreciate it more, so here’s another movie on my re-watch list.

Jeff Bridges plays the Dude, a laid-back unemployed slacker in Los Angeles who demands very little of life indeed outside of pot, White Russian drinks and bowling games with his equally eccentric buddies. He also favours comfortable casual wear and has to be one of the most shameless manspreaders in cinematic history. One day a pair of goons invade his house mistaking him for a millionaire who happens to bear the same name; they realise their blunder but not before one of them urinates on the Dude’s carpet. Deciding that it’s only fair to ask for compensation, the Dude visits his loaded namesake and gets sucked into a whirlwind plot involving kidnapping, three Germans with a pet marmot and the millionaire’s loopy daughter (Julianne Moore).

The story is really more of an excuse to hang around with a bunch of fun wacky characters and for Coens to display their knack for visuals and dialogue. There’s an inspired bit of weirdness when the Dude hallucinates surreal bowling-inspired worlds, and a rather queasy shot from within the rolling bowling ball. Jeff Bridges’ turn as the Dude has become iconic and it’s easy to see why; it’s such an effortless, relaxed yet detailed performance and you can’t help but love a character who remains so chilled, amiable and Buddha-like in the face of mishaps life throws at him. No matter who he interacts with, he is always himself. John Goodman is also pitch-perfect as Walter, the Dude’s friend and his polar opposite, a proud Vietnam veteran who can get aggressive and volatile, especially when people around him disrespect the rules. Their partnership makes for one of the funniest chalk-and-cheese pairings in recent memory. Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Philip Seymour Hoffman also pop up in hilarious supporting roles. It’s a movie that has oodles of love for its characters and the kind of loose shaggy charm that makes you forget that not much actually happens and the loose ends just sort of flap there. It’s a hard kind of movie to pull off successfully but the Coens are masters at it.

Network

networkWorkplace comedy, media satire, smart and articulate dialogue – it’s little wonder that I loved this 1976 black comedy-drama about the TV network cynically exploiting a deranged former news anchorman for the sake of ratings. The film might be 40 years old now, but it’s amazing how relevant it still feels, even though the grip and power of television has been rather diluted since then.

I knew virtually nothing about this movie beforehand other than, a) Faye Dunaway was in it and b) the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant. The latter comes from Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news presenter who learns that he’s about to be fired. The first sign of his crack-up comes when, during the live broadcast, he promises to kill himself on air. Understandably, he’s yanked off the TV, but he begs his boss and long-time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) to give him one last chance at a more dignified farewell. Instead, he ends up having a total meltdown, culminating with his famous tirade. At first it seems a final nail in the coffin, but his ravings catch the attention of Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), a shark of a programming executive who is looking for an “angry” show and thinks that Beale is a perfect modern-day mad prophet who could get their ratings going. That he’s really a mentally unstable man in urgent need of psychiatric help is a minor detail that can be brushed aside.

Diana is a fabulously devilish character: seductive, obsessed, power-hungry, amoral, and Dunaway rips into the role with gusto (and her cheekbones could cut diamonds). She ends up having an affair with Schumacher, whose job she also promptly takes over and who is strangely fascinated with her, even though he knows he’s in for the world of pain and trouble hooking up with a woman incapable of real human relationships. There’s a hilarious/sad scene where, during even their most intimate moments, Diana won’t stop talking about her job, ratings and contracts. There’s no idea too outrageous for Diana – one of her babies is a show called Mao Tse Tung Hour, a show based on the real exploits of a group of radicals, whom she woos with a contract. While funny, this subplot feels more like a story convenience that comes into play near the end.

Network doesn’t really say anything unexpected (big corporations only care about the profits!), but I’ve rarely seen it said in such an entertaining and articulate way. Thanks god this DVD had the subtitles, because I wouldn’t wish to miss on any of the movie’s razor-sharp dialogue.