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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.

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An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

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I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

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With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

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(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

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Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose hanging out in a semi-mythic patch of vegetation with CGI versions of well-loved children’s characters while a major international corporation trots out some rather hackneyed platitudes about getting your work-life balance right…’

I know I should keep an open mind, but as the prospect of viewing Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin approached, I was gripped by an ineluctable sense that I was, in some way, entering the abyss. I mean, we’ve been here before this year, haven’t we? Classic children’s story… post-Paddington CGI-live action update… big-name voice cast… In short, the spectre of Peter Rabbit loomed. An unwelcome level of further confusion was provided by the fact that only last year Domhnall Gleeson, one of that unhappy band who made up the human cast of the Rabbit movie, was to be seen playing A. A. Milne (creator, I should not need to mention, of the Winnie-the-Pooh books) in a British film entitled Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Well, anyway, no Domhnall Gleeson in this one, just a lot of Ewan McGregor. Though not quite from the start: there is a prologue restaging the closing moments of The House at Pooh Corner, one of the most profoundly moving episodes in the entirety of children’s literature. The young Christopher Robin bids a sad adieu to his childhood friends: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest (there is something slightly odd about the fact that some of the animal characters resemble animated soft toys, while others are more photorealistic). Christopher Robin and Pooh swear eternal friendship, before he departs: off to boarding school and a more grown-up world.

Eventually he grows up into McGregor, who gets married (to Hayley Atwell), fights in the Second World War, goes into business, and eventually finds himself the efficiency manager of a luggage company managed by a worthless and contemptible money-grubbing toff in a suit (Mark Gatiss, in a hairpiece so startling it almost looks computer-animated itself). The adult Christopher Robin is a bit of a workaholic, a joyless drone obsessed with the nine-to-five grind who is, needless to say, in dire peril of losing touch with the Important Things in Life. Things come to a head when he is obliged to cancel a family trip to the country by the need to come up with brutal, heartless cuts at the office: Christopher Robin is in danger of becoming a lost soul, but can anything save him?

You may very well be ahead of me on this one. It seems that the unhappiness of Christopher Robin’s life has some sort of metaphysical resonance in the fantastical realm of the Hundred Acre Wood, causing things there to be less thoroughly agreeable than usual, and this motivates Pooh Bear (inasmuch as Pooh can ever really be said to be motivated to do anything) to go in search of Christopher Robin and seek his assistance. Perhaps having to help the toys and animals is just the help he himself needs…

As I said, the trailer for Christopher Robin (a slightly odd choice of title, presumably there is some legal reason why they can’t use the Winnie-the-Pooh brand name in the title) looked worrisomely like another visit to the horrendous cultural wasteland of the Rabbit movie, right down to the climactic scenes in which the CGI characters find themselves out of their comfort zones on a trip to London. I was aware there was a possibility I might find myself spending another 104 minutes doing the Rabbit face. But like a Vietnam veteran finding himself irresistibly drawn to reenlist for another tour of duty, I went along anyway. And it is with enormous pleasure and relief that I can report that Christopher Robin is approximately 239 times better than Peter Rabbit.

It doesn’t feel like a vicious, cynical parody of the original stories, for one thing; it makes almost no attempt to be contemporary or have any kind of attitude, for another (a few aspects of the film’s post-war setting don’t quite ring true, but you would have to be a churl to make a big deal out of this). The gentle, amiable, slightly melancholic tone of the Milne stories survives very much intact – although, this being a major Disney production, we are still saddled with a Pooh who speaks with an American accent, while the characters resemble the animated Disney versions at least as much as Ernest Shepherd’s timeless illustrations (people are suggesting this is why the film is not being released in China: apparently the government has an issue with suggestions that there is any resemblance between Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh and President Xi).

Although, if we’re talking Disney, there is obviously something just a little bit Toy Story about the premise of Christopher Robin – it’s central to the plot that, rather than being imaginary friends to Christopher Robin, Pooh and the others have some kind of odd, objective existence of their own. They are on some level ‘real’. Naturally the film never goes into this in too much detail, but it does kind of add to the slightly bleak nature of the story: abandoned toys left to wander pointlessly in their pocket universe once their owner starts to grow up… it could almost be the premise for a particularly disturbing horror movie, with the embittered, maddened toys breaking through into the real world to take revenge on the man who has forsaken them.

This is not that movie, however. This one is gentle and sweet and genuinely very funny in places, and it’s quite well-written, catching the tone of Milne even when some very un-Milne-like events are in progress (at one point Winnie-the-Pooh and the others turn up at a board meeting of the luggage company). It is also rather well played by all the human performers, particularly McGregor who basically has to carry most of the movie himself. You might hope for more from some of the better-known voice artists (Peter Capaldi as Rabbit and Toby Jones as Owl don’t get much to do), but it makes sense for the film to focus on the most famous characters.

In short, I rather enjoyed Christopher Robin – it is a rather predictable film, by any measure, and the lavishly-realised post-war England it is set in is every bit as much a fantasy world as the Hundred Acre Wood, but it has a laid-back, gentle cosiness which I found really rather appealing, even if the theme – a bittersweet meditation on what it means to grow up – may be more resonant with adults than children. But maybe this is just another sign of how woefully out of touch I am with modern tastes: the Rabbit movie has racked up $350 million at the global box office, making a sequel grimly inevitably, while Christopher Robin is languishing by comparison, with less than a third of that total. Well, maybe we really do get the movies we deserve – but if so, I had no idea we had become quite so troubled as a society. Not a happy thought, but Christopher Robin is a film which will probably stand a good chance of cheering up anyone with a soul.

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‘Do you have any idea what this film is about?’ I asked Olinka as we settled into our places in a slightly rowdy city-centre theatre (having turfed out the kids who had chosen to ignore the allocated seating system and taken our spots).

‘No.’

(One of the many things I like about Olinka is that she will happily go and watch just about anything without the slightest demur, which she claims is because she simply enjoys going to the cinema with me. Hence her desire for one more trip before I disappeared for a while.)

‘Well, it’s a sort of comedy thriller.’

I was gratified to see her face light up. ‘Well, that’s good, because everything we go to see together -‘

‘- you either approach or come away from in the belief that it’s a comedy thriller, yes, I know. So I thought it would be appropriate.’

The film in question was Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, which – as the title suggests – ventures into fairly well-travelled territory as, well, not quite a spy spoof, but an espionage movie with some funny bits in it. This is one of those mid-budget genre movies for which expectations were originally quite modest, but following test screenings which apparently got ‘phenomenal’ reactions from the audience, it has been moved up to a more auspicious slot.

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, an ordinary shop assistant from Los Angeles with a slightly turbulent love life, having just been chucked by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux – if, like me, you’re one of the people who has trouble keeping track of these things, this is the dude who wrote Iron Man 2, not the prime minister of Canada). Luckily, perhaps, Mila’s slightly unhinged best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is around to cheer her up.

But then, as the title might have led you to expect, Drew crashes back into Audrey’s life, revealing that he is in fact a CIA agent being pursued by some Bad People, and that he has hidden a top-secret spy McGuffin in the stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment! It turns out that it is Audrey’s civic duty to go to Europe and deliver the McGuffin to the Right People, or at least stop the Bad People from getting their hands on it. Morgan ends up going along as well, because it’s important to have your friends around you at moments like these…

Well, from that synopsis, you would have to say that it doesn’t sound tremendously like the premise for a hilarious comedy experience. And there is a sense in which this is true, for this is one of those films which tries its hardest to hop genres. In a way it very much reminded me of the Melinda McCarthy-Jason Statham vehicle Spy, in that the spy movie bits are played very nearly straight, with some quite graphic violence, while the funny bits could have wandered in from any commercial American comedy of recent years (which is to say that they are profane, possibly to the point of actual obscenity, and fixated on bodily fluids and so forth).

The main thing I took away from this was an increased realisation of just how formulaic American genre movies have become: with The Spy Who Dumped Me, it’s like a comedy and a thriller have been deconstructed and an entirely new film has been assembled from the key elements of both. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is a film with some tonal problems, as is often the case with this sort of thing – there’s something very odd about going from a moment where the main characters are beaten and tortured, into a wacky comedy bit within the same scene. Charade this is not.

On the other hand, I suppose the whole confection works as well as it does because the espionage genre (or the more escapist end of it, anyway) has become such an absurd proposition anyway. There’s a plot line in this film about the girls being hunted by a model-like eastern European gymnast turned gun-toting assassin, and while this is so outrageously silly it sounds like something out of a spoof, it’s also exactly the kind of plot element that turns up in Luc Besson movies or films like Atomic Blonde. I know I complain about the Bond franchise being stuck in ultra-glum mode at the moment, but I suppose there’s a sense in which they’re well out of the glossy, silly end of the genre. You could argue that, in a slightly clumsy way, films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me are trying to fill the gap left by Bond in the way they combine action and humour in a wholly preposterous context.

As an actual thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me is forgettable stuff, with a plot that barely hangs together: it’s also so stuffed with cliches that it must be intentional. As a comedy, however, it is rather more effective. It’s hard to shake the sense that Mila Kunis owes a significant element of her career to the fact she is, well, easy on the eye sockets, but she’s also quite an effective lead for this kind of light comedy. It is just unfortunate for her, then, that she has wound up sharing this film with Kate McKinnon, who is a ferociously talented comic performer.

The wacky best friend is a stock figure in this kind of film; not long ago I was fairly critical of the sub-par work done by Chelsea Handler in This Means War (a film which is almost like a weird mirror image of The Spy Who Dumped Me in some ways). Kate McKinnon is not sub-par in this film: in fact, she is so good that it almost unbalances the whole thing, as she is the person you are always wanting to see more of. She has an ability to steal scenes which almost defies belief, in addition to being able to deliver a killer one-liner and also do bizarre physical comedy. She was the funniest thing (possibly the only really funny thing) in the All-Female Ghostbusters remake; she is the funniest thing here, too. If she can find herself the right vehicle to star in in her own right, global stardom surely beckons.

I said about This Means War that it felt like a rom-com aimed at jocks, which presumably explains why it was such a lousy film. The very least that you can say about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it feels like an action comedy genuinely made for a female audience. Naturally, this puts me out of the target audience in a fairly definitive way, but I still had a good time watching it. The supposed plot is negligible, but there’s McKinnon doing her thing, and there are also lots of very good jokes, many of them about the culture clash between the US and Europe. There’s also a typical adroit cameo from Gillian Anderson, whom it is always nice to see.

In the end we rather enjoyed this bona fide comedy thriller; we weren’t hooting and gasping and shrieking like many other members of the audience at our screening, but we had fun. It’s not what you could honestly call a great film, by any measure, nor does it really break new ground. But in terms of the odd little intersection of genres where it finds itself, it is an entertaining and quite likeable movie.

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There was a time, nearly fifteen years ago, when I basically just got burned out as far as going to the cinema was concerned: catching every significant new release started to feel like a burden, I was acutely aware of the demands I was making on the people close to me in terms of constantly asking for lifts to and from the multiplex, and there were some other changes to the cinemas themselves which made it all seem rather less appealing. So I cut back drastically for the best part of a year, only seeing things I was really interested in. As a result there are some films which I recall seeing the trailers for multiple times, and remembering thinking ‘hmmm, that looks like it has potential’ about, which I never ended up going to see.

Another cutback looms, though for slightly different reasons: I am off to where the films are all dubbed into a foreign language for a couple of months, and long experience has taught me this is never the best way to meet a new movie. Needless to say I will be taking with me (ahem) a large trunk filled with DVDs to while away the quiet moments, and when I asked for suggestions as to what to put in the trunk, one of the suggestions was Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! (even though, given my destination, a film entitled Hello Again Putin! might be slightly more appropriate) – this was one of the films that just missed the cut back in 2004, mainly due to it only getting a very limited release in my area (subtitled films always had a hard time in Lancashire – at one point, if you rang up to book tickets for one, the person on the other end would ask you if you were sure you knew what you were doing).

(Lest you be wondering, yes, it apparently is definitely called Good Bye Lenin!, rather than the Goodbye Lenin! or even Good-bye Lenin! you might expect. Just another sign of a film made by non-native speakers of English, I suppose, along with the fact that the subtitles on the DVD had rather more spelling mistakes than you might expect. What can I say, I’m never off-duty.)

So, anyway, I decided to watch this particular film before my actual foreign trip got started (eight days and counting). Mostly set in 1989 and 1990, it concerns a young man named Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his family, who as the film opens are resident in East Berlin. Alex’s father apparently abandoned them and fled to the west some years earlier, and as a reaction to this his mother (Katrin Sass) has become a zealous true believer in the communist system. His sister (Maria Simon) is more pragmatic.

Alex himself is no fan of communism and opts to take part in a public protest one night, with two very significant consequences: firstly, he meets a rather nice young Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) with whom he goes on to have a relationship, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) the sight of him being arrested by the police and bundled into the back of a truck is enough to give his mother a severe heart attack. Poor medical attention results in her being in a coma for eight months, during which time the Wall comes down and the communist government collapses. Alex is warned by the doctors that his mother’s health is fragile and she should be spared any shocks or excitement – which will be tricky, in the circumstances.

So Alex embarks on a systematic programme of benevolent deception, getting rid of all the post-communist things that are cluttering their apartment and doing everything he can to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed in East Germany. Initially this just takes the form of transferring new food into old packaging, but it inevitably becomes more and more elaborate as time goes on. Can Alex keep his mother in the dark, even as the reunification of Germany approaches? And is he really acting for the best in deceiving her like this?

For a long time I was aware of Good Bye Lenin! and eventually came to think of it as ‘the Daniel Bruhl movie’, this being the film that really brought the actor to international attention: he has gone on to make contributions of various sizes to films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, Captain America: Civil War and Alone in Berlin, to name only a handful. I’ve always found him to be an extremely watchable actor, and that’s the case here, too – he carries the movie with great aplomb, without ever doing anything too flashy or otherwise being caught acting.

That said, Good Bye Lenin! is a very accomplished film in many ways. The advertising for the film perhaps over-emphasises the comic elements of the plot, stressing the absurdist comedy of Alex trying to maintain the illusion of communism’s survival. There are indeed some very funny moments arising from this – at one point, Alex makes a cheery speech to his mother about time going by, but nothing really changing, totally oblivious to the Coca-Cola advert slowly unfurling in the window behind him – and there’s something quite fascinating about the alternate history he is forced to develop to explain all the changes happening in the city (Coca-Cola is finally acknowledged as an invention of socialism, while an economic crisis in the west has flooded the eastern bloc countries with refugees seeking a better life). Much of the humour is very understated and ironic, particularly Alex’s dry voice-over (at one point he explains how he embarked on his first mission to explore western culture, which plays over a scene of him visiting a sex shop in the west).

However, the film is never very far from a more serious moment, as perhaps befits this kind of subject matter. The film is really about the partition of Germany, and the consequences of its reunification, with the division of Alex’s own family and the heartbreak arising from this a metaphor for the divided country. And it’s very hard to escape the impression that the film is, on some level, motivated by nostalgia for some aspects of life in the old East Germany – it seems rather disdainful of the garish consumerism that filled the void left by the collapse of communism, especially famous brands like Coke and Burger King. Towards the end one of Alex’s faked TV broadcasts speaks of the westerners fleeing their materialistic lives, coming to eastern Europe in hope of something better, and you can almost imagine something like that happening.

I suppose you could argue that the film’s not-unsympathetic depiction of life under communism is part and parcel of the story, which hinges upon Alex’s mother and her love for the old system – the film views it with the same rose-tinted spectacles that she does. In the end the film stays ambivalent about the morality of the deception Alex perpetrates, as it does seem to keep his mother happy. Maybe the communist system was based on another deception, but it was not without its own kind of optimism.

In the end this is a thoughtful film, with moments of seriousness as well as humour, clearly made by people who know their cinema (there are a couple of cheerfully brazen raids on Kubrick, for instance). I wonder if perhaps you have to be German to really appreciate the emotional core of the picture, for it certainly feels like a film made in a country still trying to deal with its own recent history, but for everyone else this is still a well-made, entertaining, moving film.

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It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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