Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Pain and Gain (2013)

pain and gain

Pain and Gain (2013) takes us back to 1995 in Miami-Dade and long before Lieutenant Horatio Caine made this a safe place to live. That means people like Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) roam free to work their mischief (as the film repeatedly tells us, this is based on a true story). Such men may enhance their bodies through hard work lifting weights and the occasional injection of steroids, but big muscles on the outside do not make big brains on the inside. The set-up shows us a man on the run from the police who obviously had a get-rich-quick scheme that went wrong. When we move back six months in time and hear his sales pitch for what makes America so great, we know why it went wrong. This body-building narcissist lives in a fantasy land where his heroes are drawn from the cinema and the associated mythology of successful criminals. He watches a lot of movies so has an infallible plan to kidnap Victor Kershsaw (Tony Shalhoub). To make this plan work, he recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who has a veneer of Christian values spread over the stinking pile of moral weakness underneath, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) whose excessive investment in steroids has left him seriously challenged in the sex department.


From this brief introduction, you will understand this is probably intended as a comedy and may well have pretensions to social commentary. When I mention the director is Michael Bay you can express surprise at the lack of anything SFnal or supernatural. We even get to the end without any explosions (although there’s a reasonable amount of violence if that’s what gets you through the door of the cinema). It’s actually impressive to see a man who has made his money with big screen action films make something on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with an idea this dumb, he should have been a don’ter not a doer.

Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg managing to cross the road

Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg managing to cross the road


To be honest, I don’t usually go to American comedies (assuming that’s what this is). As my age has advanced, I’ve been finding the cultural gap on transatlantic humour harder to cross. To say that my decision to watch this is an example of optimism prevailing over intelligence is therefore an understatement. After sitting through it, the question I’m left with is why we’re supposed to think kidnapping, robbery, and attempting to and actually murdering people is funny. Let’s pause for a moment and go back to Ruthless People (1986) in which two less than competent criminals kidnap Bette Midler to extort money from Danny DeVito. I recall this as mildly amusing and, at ninety-three minutes, it knew exactly how long a joke can be spun out before it loses its edge. At 129 minutes, this pile of amoral entertainment makes the case that it’s no big deal to rob Victor Kershaw because he’s a cruel and unsympathetic man. The police have no interest in his story. None of his neighbours missed seeing him around. His employees are relieved he no longer comes in to abuse them. Only retired private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) even vaguely believes Victor’s claims and, in the first instance, it’s only because he’s so bored, he will seize any excuse to get out of the house.

Ed Harris looking cool and competent

Ed Harris looking cool and competent


As to our “heroes”, they think they’re home free after their first team crime. Adrian Doorbal gets married — the drugs to restore his erections are now affordable, Daniel Lugo becomes a pillar of the local neighborhood watch, and Paul Doyle rediscovers cocaine and the high that comes from having cops shoot at you after a failed robbery. Then when the fact of one-man pursuit penetrates their thick heads, they decide to double down. Not for them the pussy way of running away. They’ll do it again. Hell, yeh! Well, we all know how that’s going to go. By this time, I’m beyond despair. The divergence from the plan proves significant and the jokes (if that’s what they’re intended to be) get progressively more sick — chainsaws and BBQs come into play. Frankly, I see nothing even remotely funny about any of this. To dignify it as “dark comedy” or a social commentary would be absurd. Are we really supposed to accept the ideal route to realising the American dream is through crime? I know there have been some spectacular examples of fraudsters hitting it rich and accept that, in a country where being rich excuses many minor and some major faults, it’s possible to tell an entertaining story about such people. But no-one here looks good (apart from the retired detective and his wife). It doesn’t matter whether it’s the girl on the complaints desk at a hardware store or the wealthy neighbours Daniel Lugo inherits, everyone is shown as massively indifferent to notions of social responsibility at best or actively into lust, drugs and anything else sinful or criminal they think they can get away with. What we see is a society in decline.

Tony Shalhoub thinking life is sweet

Tony Shalhoub thinking life is sweet


Under normal circumstances, I might look the other way. It’s just another of these offensive films about life in the decadent West. But here we’re repeatedly told this is based on real-world events: the exploits of the Sun Gym Gang in the 1990s as told by Pete Collins. So taking this as a true story of three bodybuilders and the incredible failures of the Metro-Dade police force, I’m left with one final question. Where’s the film-makers’ disapproval of these idiotically dangerous criminals and of the dangerously incompetent police officers? I might have come away with a better opinion of this film if I’d felt the director and scriptwriters were holding these people up as exemplars of what not to do. Instead we have deranged heroes in what’s intended to be a comedy running rings around brain dead police officers. We’re obviously intended to laugh at their pathetic efforts to kill Victor Kershaw. What message is that sending to the audience? When they later accidentally kill people, we’re intended to laugh at their efforts to dispose of the bodies. I find this implicit approval of their actions to be profoundly offensive. Matching the film, the fact that the real-world Daniel Lugo has still not been executed is a testament to the pathetic way the American justice system works. If you have the death penalty and you have a deserving candidate, you dismiss the appeals and carry out the sentence. If you don’t, what’s the point of having capital punishment? What message is this sending to other potential kidnappers and killers? Even if you do get caught, America can’t kill people when they deserve to die. At every level, both as fiction and as a reference to real-world events, Pain and Gain is not just film with a moral vacuum at its core. From the fact of its production and the way in which it’s marketed, we’re being inviting to see this story of out-of-control predators as entertaining. The failure of the film-makers to take a moral stance against the events being shown makes this worse than Arbitrage and I thought that was bad.


The Croods (2013)

The Croods_poster

Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.

In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.

Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.

However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.

The Intouchables or Intouchables (2011)

December 19, 2012 Leave a comment

The Intouchables

Living at the end of the world, The Intouchables or Intouchables (2011) has only just reached me. In another world, I might have died before I had the chance. Such are the uncertainties of life for those of us who have grown old and/or are disabled. We live from day to day with little to distinguish one from the next. Time blurs. Those of us with a less positive view wait with whatever patience we can muster for the end. We daydream, thinking back to how life used to be before our bodies let us down. When we were young, little seemed impossible. We ran and jumped. If we fell, there was someone to pick us up. The body healed itself. We never gave it a second thought. Then for people like Philippe (François Cluzet) in this film, all that is over in an instant. For him, it was an accident while paragliding. For us oldies, it’s the slow descent into physical incompetence. It starts with little things like twinges in the joints when we decide we can catch the bus if we run, and develops into the need to take life at a more sedate pace. We have to assess whether we can get up again if we crouch down, or will fall down if we stand up too quickly. And all this time we have to live with the memories of what it was like to live in a body that obeyed us without conscious thought. Being deprived of that freedom leaves us trapped in the body as a kind of prison. At least I can still move around. Philippe is a quadriplegic so the prison is escape-proof.

François Cluzet beginning to relax and adjust

François Cluzet beginning to relax and adjust


The other protagonist, Driss (Omar Sy), is just as much a prisoner but for entirely different reasons. At an early age, he was sent over to France to be adopted by his Uncle and Aunt. Unfortunately, the previously childless couple then produced a family. This left Driss out in the emotional cold. He grows up in one of les banlieues, I use the word to describe one of the Parisienne sink estates largely populated by the poor in high-density, low-quality accommodation. He’s immersed in a culture of prejudice and intolerance, and grows into a victimised adult living up to the middle and upperclass expectations of surly dependence. No-one gives him a chance so he’s socially alienated, powerless and deeply resentful. When he’s sent to a job interview as a carer, he’s only going through the motions to gain access to the benefit payments. Indeed, he never expects to return to this upperclass home again, which is why he feels free to steal one of the Fabergé eggs openly displayed. It therefore comes as something of a shock to him when he’s offered the job. This nicely catches him in the benefit trap. If he turns down the offer, he’s barred from claiming benefits. To preserve his rights he must work for not less than two weeks and not be dismissed. To complete the culture shock, he must live in and, for the first time in his life, actually gets a bathroom of his own.


Why should a rich man hire such a “useless specimen of humanity” as his carer? The answer comes through the interviews with the other men applying for the job. Without exception, they are completely useless. Indeed, if anyone like them applied for a job as my carer, I would be reaching for my gun (assuming I was not a quadriplegic, of course). There’s something genuinely appalling about the smug and sanctimonious air of do-goodery that afflicts many professional carers. They give the impression they are doing you a favour by even sharing the same air as you. Driss, on the other hand, is oblivious to Philippe’s injury and has absolutely no pity in his reaction to meeting him. It’s a collision between a dependent male barely hanging on to his self-confidence and a young man who’s never had to take responsibility for himself. It later becomes apparent that Driss has always been protective of the children who replaced him in the affection of his adoptive parents. To that limited extent, he’s been a carer. This job is rather different because it involves personal nursing at the sharp end of personal functions — not something Driss has ever thought about in dealing with adults. For him, life is simple. If it’s female, talk her into agreeing to sex. If it’s male and doing something against the “rules”, make your feelings clear by hitting him.

Omar Sy with the chip on his shoulder

Omar Sy with the chip on his shoulder


It’s the incongruity of the relationship that makes it so fascinating. They are both men on the margins of society. For Philippe, his disability is a barrier to genuine emotions from his old friends and current colleagues. Their pity offers him nothing but the loss of hope. This invader provides the kind of adventure he never thought he could have again. He’d been a thrill seeker and then found himself wrapped in cotton wool to protect him against even the possibility of further injury. For Driss, his feet are set on the path to career criminal. He will end up either dead or in jail for the rest of his life. This introductory period is nothing more than a burden to be endured until he can safely leave and collect his benefit. Somewhere in the middle, there’s the possibility of minds meeting, a compromise between the cloistered world of classical music and opera where trees burst into song in German and take root on stage for four hours, and a man who thinks Earth, Wind & Fire is a classic group. What then happens is a delightful comedy. Not in the crude, slapstick sense of laughing at a disabled man, but in allowing humour to emerge from the tragedy of the situations as they apply to both men.


Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, The Intouchables or Intouchables has collected multiple international awards including the César Award for Best Actor for Omar Sy. For those of you interested in the mundane details, it’s based on the real-world figures Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou. Philippe has remarried. Abdel has settled down and is running his own chicken farm which, in a perverse kind of way, seems entirely appropriate for someone who was up to his elbows in Philippe’s shit for several years. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012 and it’s rightly the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for the 85th Academy Awards. If you have not already done so, you should make every effort to see this film.


Grabbers (2012)

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment


Back in the late 1950s, I remember paying to see Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) which was intended as comedy science fiction, but failed rather miserably. Hence, its designation as a B movie. It’s relevance to Grabbers (2012) is that the 1950s invaders from outer space came equipped with retractable claws, capable of injecting their enemies with killer venom, i.e. 100% alcohol which, of course, is toxic in sufficient quantities. So if you should go down to the woods today, you’d be sure of a big surprise if an alien stabbed its claws into you and you enjoyed the results (up to a point, anyway). In fact, those aliens do kill an alcoholic, giving him an overdose even his sozzled system can’t absorb. Well, Grabbers could be subtitled Poitín vs. the Aliens or Alcoholism Saves! Indeed, it would be hard to find a better advert for Irish moonshine.

Richard Coyle showing Ruth Bradley and Russell Tovey that a rolled-up newspaper is the preferred weapon

Richard Coyle showing Ruth Bradley and Russell Tovey that a rolled-up newspaper is the preferred weapon


It all starts with the ultimate cliché of a camera watching from Earth orbit as a streak of fire indicates a fast incoming object hitting the upper atmosphere. Switch to a trawler at sea off the Irish coast and a green contrail overhead is followed by a big splash. Needless to say the three fishermen don’t last very long. The question thereafter is how you subvert the predictable plot of a small number of defenceless people stuck on an island with no prospect of rescue as the alien beasties wade onshore for dinner. The answer comes in an exploration of the logic that might be applied by the people at risk. First we need to meet the key plays and this is nicely managed through the arrival on the island of Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). She’s a workaholic police officer assigned to hold the fort on the small island for two weeks. The officer she meets when she arrives is Garda Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle). He’s still in mourning for the death of his marriage and drinks himself insensible every night. On their first day, he gives her the quick tour which shows her where the heavy earthmoving equipment is stored and, more, importantly, what’s on the beach. Unusually, it’s the bodies of whales which seem to have been attacked and driven ashore. Studying them is Dr Adam Smith (Russell Tovey), the mandatory scientist who can later guess what’s going on even though he’s British and so not the brightest bulb in the box. The other character of interest is Paddy Barrett (Lalor Roddy). He finds something of interest in his lobster pot, takes it home and puts it in his bath. His salvation is the moonshine he makes and uses to pickle his internal organs.


So here comes the punchline. After a very scientific test, our community leaders prove the aliens sicken and potentially die if they attempt to consume blood enriched with too much alcohol. Since the people can’t get off the island, their only salvation lies in a lock-in at the local pub. So long as they all stay outrageously incapacitated, they should be safe. You may well be wondering how our aquatic aliens can cope on land. The answer lies in the very heavy rain which falls the first night they come for a snack and which will accompany the storm front preventing evacuation the next day. With no time to spare, all the locals are gathered together and offered as much free booze as they can consume. Naturally, they are curious but it’s not until later they discover the reason. In the second half of the film, the trick is to track who has the bottle of Paddy’s poitín. It’s inspirational stuff when it comes to collecting holiday snaps of visitors or suggesting good things to do with a nail gun. Indeed, half the fun of this film is watching how the Dutch courage kicks in, particularly benefitting Ruth Bradley’s Lisa Nolan who becomes completely fearless after her first serious drinking session.

Lalor Roddy demonstrating staying safe while drunk

Lalor Roddy demonstrating the art of staying safe while drunk


So, summing up, we have a fun take on the most hoary of monster movie tropes. I laughed out loud a couple of times which is a rarity. I think I was seduced by the fact the entire cast play this completely straight and, most importantly, no-one panics and runs around like a headless chicken. There’s no attempt at humour in the usual overt sense of cracking jokes. Indeed, the only time one of the cast does tell a joke, it falls completely flat. The CGI on the monster and its spawn is efficiently done, managing to maintain sufficiently credibility in the danger they all represent to the humans (although there’s a moment of false cuteness mimicking Gremlins (1984) where the spawn come into the bar out of the rain). In general, the plot is nicely judged and it doesn’t outstay its welcome at 94 minutes running time. The weakness comes in the central performance from Richard Coyle. Somehow it’s not convincing as a functioning alcoholic. Although he seems to have developed a tolerance for alcohol, there are no signs of withdrawal symptoms when he’s not drinking. There’s no irritability if he can’t drink at the expected time, no tremors so we can see him gulping the alcohol down from hidden stashes to feel normal. Indeed, when he does go cold turkey, there are no ill effects at all which wrecks the credibility of the performance. Moving in the opposite direction, Ruth Bradley does very well as a first-time drunk, just staying on the right side — the performance reminded me of Jimmy James, whom I saw live in the music hall — because she was so completely serious all the time which is what you would expect. Even the drunkest person remembers and concentrates on the essentials when her life is at risk. So Grabbers is entertaining in a modest way and a very good example of one of the most difficult things to achieve — an amusing SF film which is a homage to, and not a parody of, the failures of 1950s B movies.


The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby

September 16, 2012 3 comments

We need to set out on this journey of discovery with a short discussion on how to define a “comic novel”. Historically speaking, it could be judged by criteria of blandness, i.e. that it all turns out well for the good and the bad get their just deserts. This is fiction as seen by the Miss Prisms of this world (as in The Importance of Being Earnest) which, as Cecily Cardew observes, is not the fairest way for things to turn out. The reason? Because it fails to answer the question actually posed for who’s to say how the goodness or badness of the protagonists is to be judged. For example, we might think Malvolio in Twelfth Night gets his just deserts, but he’s rather more narcissistic than bad, an arrogant hypocrite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two. So this makes this Shakespearean humour more as defined by Plato who thought comedy lay in people’s failure to understand themselves and their roles in society. Together with Socrates and Aristotle, he explored the idea that there’s something ugly, if not hateful, about those who demonstrate ignorance of themselves. This does not, of itself, make the characters bad but it can make the humour cruel by exposing their weaknesses. Yet, the fact we may see people’s behaviour and beliefs as delusional and ludicrous does not prevent things from turning out well for them. Indeed, if they learn the extent of their errors and make efforts to reform, they can avoid the bad outcomes. Authors need not be heavy-handed moralists with an agenda to punish all who transgress social boundaries. In the midst of amusement at the expense of these characters, the authors can be asking the reader to think about the social themes woven into the narrative. Indeed, it’s often the case that by framing a novel as an apparent comedy, we can be seduced into thinking constructively about taboo issues — an inherently good outcome.

Which slightly heavy-weight discussion brings me to The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) and our first meeting with Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick. Since they live in a time of war, they turn their hands to mining the battlefield dead for their cash and personal valuables. This would be a relatively safe and highly remunerative business opportunity if Gerd had grown to be more than the village idiot who was seduced from the care of his grandmother by the smooth-talking Marius. But, in sidekick terms, he’s as smart as bait. In this case, he attracts the attention of soldiers searching for the body of the King. They don’t take kindly to “graverobbers” and despatch poor Gerd. Although this is a short-term distraction and allows Marius to evade capture, he’s them forcibly invited to join the dead under the battlefield. They’re upset at the prospect of being without a King so, in military terms, task Marius to recruit a King for them. They make the usual threats to encourage him to take the task seriously, even returning Gerd as a factotum.

Lee Battersby, bearded as all good Nottingham-born Australians

Except, of course, once he’s released back into the world, his mission is to get as far away from the dead as possible, and that includes Gerd. But how does someone dead blend back into the human community? And just where in the human world are you far enough away from the dead to be safe? So begins most of the most amusing fantasy journeys of the last few years. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say this is anything like the best fantasy book of the year but, in its own terms, it’s certainly one of the best comic novels I’ve read for many a year. Marius is a man who’s grown comfortable in his own skin as a bilker and hustler. When he dies, the skin shrivels and the marks won’t stand still long enough to hear the pitch. They’re far more interested in running away as quickly as possible. With his style completely cramped, he elects to go on a sea trip, i.e. we get into a picaresque format as our roguish hero tries to get by on his wits but is continually frustrated. This leads to some introspection, triggered by occasional sensations. As a question to chew on, how dead are the dead who are still walking around and able to interact with the living? It’s a tricky question and, courtesy of some backstory and one or two meetings with individuals he’s known in the past, our hero comes to a better view of himself. His self-ignorance shrivels along with his skin. He ponders on whether there’s a way of reversing his condition. Should he actually find a King who can lead the dead, would “death” release him? Could he and Gerd actually return to life? For the entertaining answers to these and other relevant questions, you’ll have to read the book. While doing so, you can be assured that the comic greats, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, would probably have found it hilarious.

The Corpse-Rat King is completely beguiling and genuinely amusing, something you rarely find in a book clearly marketed as fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for picking up this delightfully non-standard novel and bringing it to the market. If there’s any justice in the world, it will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

For a review of the sequel, see The Marching Dead.

Cover by Nick Castle Design.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (2011)

The conversation with my wife began inauspiciously. I suggested we go see a Thai film. She was immediately up in arms. “I don’t like horror films,” was the first of several minutes of complaint, switching from horror to the Muay Thai films with Ong-Bak beating everyone up in his search for a white elephant. I did my best to remind her of The Iron Ladies or Satree lek and its sequel but, for a while, everything hung in the balance. “A comedy? A coming-of-age film? Out of Thailand?” Incredulity was temporarily her middle name. Eventually, curiosity got the better of her and I duly handed over money. We huddled in the back row, trying to blend in while surrounded by a crowd of youngsters. Fortunately, none of them were interested in adolescent canoodling and, as the lights went down with modesty preserved on all sides, we were into SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (the three Thai words translate as “Brilliantly Bad”).

Pachara Chirathivat and Jirayu La-ongmanee consider their options


I vividly remember the first two singles released by the Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the UK” was raw energy. Their version of “God Save the Queen” was hilariously irreverent. Within weeks of their arrival, they had outraged everyone that should have been outraged and amused the rest of us. Naming a band SuckSeed should give you a clue about what this trio of young Thais is all about. Their first single as an entry into a competition for bands is appropriately anthemic. It runs along the lines, “We suck. We’re complete failures. We’re all going down in flames, but we’re going to do it together. Yes, we all suck together. . .” and so on. So what you have to imagine is three youngsters who cannot play properly, thrashing away on guitar, bass and drums while the “singer” shouts himself hoarse. For the live performance in competition, they even arrange for a young boy to run on stage to be sick while a fat boy does potentially obscene things just out of camera shot. By Thai standards, it’s all a bit radical, but it beautifully captures what the film is all about.


Here we have two boys. Ped (Jirayu La-ongmanee) is terminally shy, while his best friend Koong (Pachara Chirathivat) has an older and very talented brother. Consequently, Koong never tries seriously to do anything, having already decided he cannot compete with his brother. Nevertheless, in his relationship with Ped, he finds some degree of liberation and is dominant, always organising Ped into yet another activity. In junior school, they are in the same class as Ern (Nattasha Nauljam). Inevitably, Ped loves her from the start but is incapable of doing anything about it. When he discovers she is moving to Bankok, he does his best by recording an attempted song to declare his love but, when he telephones to arrange delivery of the tape, he’s so intimidated by Ern’s father, he claims to be Koong and then puts down the phone. This leads to the predictable confusion at school when the gossip links Ern and Koong.

Nattasha Nauljam demonstrating real flair on the guitar


We now leap forward to secondary school. Ern has returned and, from Koong’s point of view, there’s the worst possible development. His brother has proved himself a wonderful rock musician and is fronting a band called Arena. So great is his charisma, he can pull any girl in the school. This finally provokes Koong into direct competition. When he discovers Ern is also a great guitarist, he decides to form a band. Ped is deputed to hold the bass and a boy, enigmatically named Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert) whose flair at basketball is demonstrated when he falls and breaks his arm, is roped in as the drummer. Needless to say, he’s not a great success with one stick lodged in the plaster cast on his arm. But for a moment, with Ern playing lead, they have purpose and don’t sound too awful. Unfortunately, Koong tries to form a relationship with Ern and drives her away — inevitably, she joins Arena — and Ex has the same unhappy experience with his hoped-for girlfriend. Hence, all three boys are total failures when it comes to girls and reflect this in their song which, not surprisingly, propels them into the final of the competition.

Thawat Pornrattanaprasert thinking about becoming a drummer


So, first of all, the good things. Without exception, the acting is naturalistic and affecting. All four leads come out of this well. Although it’s a long time ago, I can remember what it was like as a teen trying to summon up the courage to talk with girls. This script focuses on the inevitable conflict as our two heroes fall for the same girl with first-time director, Chayanop Boonprakob using the music well to capture their moods. The convention of having the lead singers from the original recordings turn up on screen to sing to the cast just about avoids overstaying its welcome. One more time and it would have become annoying albeit one or two sequences are actually amusing. Which brings us to the second good thing. Thai humour is laugh-out-loud when it’s allowed to surface. There were times when the cinema erupted — always a good sign. But this hides a problem. There’s great energy in the direction with there even being some quite witty animation to capture one moment. But the whole is too long by about twenty minutes. It actually lasts 136 minutes with the director showing his inexperience by allowing some of the scenes to overrun. It gives the whole a slightly laboured feel. Yes, the jokes and the central triangular relationship between Jirayu La-ongmanee, Pachara Chirathivat and Nattasha Nauljam keep up the interest, but the slow pacing prevents the film from being a complete “success”.


SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep is fun as a coming-of-age film set to a mixture of punk and contemporary Thai rock music. When they set out to try playing and singing, the boys are gloriously bad and celebrate that fact. Even though shy, they make a sustained attempt to break through their inhibitions. Arena, by contrast, are very professional. On a personal note, I was always slightly more quiet which means I’m probably the wrong generation to judge this. It’s a universal truth that, by our own high standards, we all suck as human beings when we’re young. Perhaps I should just go with the flow of the the young audience around me who found it immensely enjoyable. Continuing the positive side, my wife is now recommending it to her friends as the best Thai horror film of all times.


Paris Express or Coursier (2010)

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Let’s take two completely different situations. First, we have the consummate professional delivery rider called Sam. The firm may not value him, giving him the worst of the bikes with dangerous tyres, but the only people who can get from A to B faster are in a helicopter. On the ground, there’s no stopping him. Think parkour on a scooter and you have our man. Except he is both unlucky (so often late) and diffident (so hides his light under a bushel). It would therefore be harder to find a more down-trodden man. Particularly because his girl friend, Nadia, has already told her parents he is a businessman running a delivery company and with her sister’s wedding looming, she is being forced into the situation of having to introduce a failure to all her family. In this context, those of you who are old enough should remember Jour de Fête, a remarkable comedy by Jacques Tati. Here a rural postman is suddenly inspired to acts of greatness by seeing a documentary film about the US postal system. One should never be surprised when quiet men prove themselves lions.


Second, we have a top criminal gang that has stolen something of great value for a buyer. Now there has to be an exchange of value. To achieve this, the right players have to be in the right place at the right time with all that is necessary to make the exchange. Think Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett in the library with both the rope and the dagger. If anyone or anything is missing, the exchange will fail and serious criminals will be upset.


Now mix. At an early point in setting up the exchange, Loki, the courier played by the sauve Jimmy Jean-Louis, realises he is being followed, so hands over a large amount of cash in an envelope to Sam. All our star delivery man has to do is deliver the unopened envelope to a café in an adjoining neighbourhood. It should only take ten minutes. What could be easier?

Catalina Denis and Michael Youn


The essence of good farce is that it should be absolutely straight. If anyone steps out of character and plays to the camera, showing they understand their situation, the whole effect is lost. So Sam must innocently take the package and then ensure it gets where it is supposed to go. Except. . . Well, it seems there are different groups determined to lay their hands on the stolen goods or the price to be paid for them or both. Sam is therefore taken in hand by one faction and must work out where to go next to use the money to buy the diamonds. So begins the pursuit of a logical trail across Paris. At different points, Nadia is kidnapped but does not realise it. One of Sam’s friends is kidnapped and does realise it. Sam appears to have rough sex with an Amazon who, when not beating up men, enjoys discussing the finer points of classical art. We all get to see a new version of the Macarena as a wedding dance, and learn how the possession of several staplers can make men dangerous.


All of this should indicate that this is a laugh-out-loud farce of the highest class. Yes, people fight and draw blood, and bullets fly with devastating effect on property. But as absurdity piles on logical absurdity, we move inexorably towards the final exchange, helped by Dickhead who cannot hold his urine, particularly after eating chocolate cake. We collect Professor Plum as our expert valuer and Miss Scarlett has the original stolen goods. The only question is whether Sam can stand in for Colonel Mustard.


As for the cast, everyone is wonderfully deadpan. Michaël Youn plays an increasingly desperate Sam who must somehow find his way through the maze. Géraldine Nakache as Nadia slowly comes to realise she is in the middle of gang warfare (even as her sister’s wedding goes on around her). While Catalina Denis as our Amazon warrior shows remarkable humanity for someone so deadly. Written and directed by Hervé Renoh a director moving from the small to the large screen, we have a wonderfully assured result, beautifully balancing the necessities of the plot and the opportunities for the principal characters to grow. It is genuinely hilarious and, if you do speak French, the bland English subtitles hardly do justice to the variety of the swearing. This adds to the humour but enables the film to show with a lower age rating. Most refreshingly, the mixture of ages and cultures in the surrounding seats were all laughing. Sometimes humour does not cross cultural boundaries. This seems to win people over by being a subversive action thriller. There is mayhem and chases, even a leap to make Evel Knievel proud, but all in the pursuit of amusement. It’s worth every cent to see it.


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