Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! (1976)

An industrial factory is getting an overhaul, and present supervisor Kroupek must retake his high school exams and graduate in order to keep his job. Having just been critical of his son for not doing well in his studies, Kroupek must now put his money where his mouth is, and either show how well he remembers his old classes, or else the factory will be in the hands of a scheming coworker...

The amusingly titled Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is a gem of Czechoslovakian comedy. It has a great concept, and one ripe for potential stories and gags. I'd say if this has any big problem, it's mainly that there could've been more. I could imagine this as a tv series, like Mind Your Language, where each week is a new amusing situation.

The message here is an effective one, and there is a goodhearted conclusion.

The characters are a nice bunch. It's amusing seeing how these middle aged folk all revert to classroom hijinx, such as playing pranks on one another, messing with the teacher, trying to get out of studying, passing around notes, and developing schoolyard crushes (despite all being married!). The villain of the piece is Hujer, a smarmy and incompetent scrub who is in danger of becoming the new factory's foreman, if Kroupek is unable to graduate.

I especially liked the relationship between father and son. Jiří starts off like an underachiever, before you realise not only is he doing better in his studies than his brow-beating father realises, but he actually ends up being the one capable of tutoring him. Though Kroupa is too stubborn to admit it till it's almost too late.

The comedy here is successful, getting lots of material out of its setting and characters, paired together nicely. These range from trouble and misunderstandings over classroom notes, to a confusion when one student reads about a parent teacher conference and wonders if this means he has to get his elderly parents from a few villages over.

My favourite parts were the discussions of what Hubris means, and the ineffectual sowing machine. The Romanian scene also made me crack up. Some of the dialogue and wordplay might go over the heads of foreigners, but the majority of it you'll get the gist of easily enough.

There was one joke at the very start that I was expecting a payoff for though, and it never came. I wish I'd known, because I was eager to see what damage would be wrought because of the lazy builder's chalk line over feet.

This is never a bad movie, and I don't really have any complaints. The ending however was a real disappointment. There isn't one, really! The way the plot is paced, it feels like there's still got to be a fair amount of time left, yet there's only 5 minutes. So how is the movie going to resolve all of this? The answer is it doesn't. Kroupek does poorly in his latest test, he asks his son for help and they study, then the movie skips ahead to the completed factory. It just leaves us to assume he graduated. It's disappointing, not only because I actually wanted to see that, but also the successess of the other students. I wanted to see Hujer get his full comeuppance, and Mrs. Týfová learn a lesson about propriety (although her last scene is an amusingly fitting one).

The actors all give fun performances, and each have their own unique charms. A couple did blend together a little, but overall they still amused. Jiří Sovák is a fine lead, while his real life son Jiří Schmitzer is nice, and shares good chemistry with those around him. The teachers are lots of fun, even if I sometimes wished there were more of them, or they appeared more consistently.

The music here is nice enough, with a particularly neat piece being a medley of what sounds like classic Tinpan Alley songs over the end. They're a bit random and abrupt sometimes, but it's still a fun treat, and does make you leave the film in a reasonably positive mood even if you have been left disappointed by the ending.

While not my favourite Czech comedy, Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is still a nice fun time. It's a very casual movie to just pop on and enjoy, especially for European aficionados...

Lajanje na Zvezde-Barking at the Stars (1998)

Yugoslavia in the 90s wasn't exactly the most cuddly of times, as a few slight disagreements led to a spot of bother. Despite these troubles, and the subsequent impact on the movie industry, it still managed to not only remain alive, but delivered a few genuine classics. Not just in spite of the chaos going around them, but serving in many ways as an antithesis. 

A high schooler is ready for [graduation] prom night, and as he prepares [himself], his parents regale him the story of how their romance began. Back in the 60s, cheeky youth Philosopher makes it his quest to woo the beautiful but seemingly uninterested Danica, amidst various other schoolyard shenanigans, sports contests, and day to day events as their last year of school comes to an end...

Barking at the Stars is a much-loved entry in Serbia's film history, as well as the Balkans as a whole. It's admired, because contrary to many other movies, foreign and domestic, it maintains a clean image throughout. Swearing and boobies are all well and good, but when it's all you get it can be a bit tiring, especially in schoolyard settings. Those kind of elements often leave you disliking everyone involved.

Making the film better/more impactful is that the teens still have an unruly edge to them, rather than being cookie cutter boy scouts. It captures that sweet spot where they're typically energetic and undisciplined youths, but not so much that they're unlikeable, crass, or cruising for a bruising. They're also not nymphomaniacs either! Romantic, yes, girl-crazy, of course, but they're not openly banging in the hallways.

The tone is lighthearted, with minimal drama and a focus on the general lives and loves as these kids go through their last year of school. The film is free from any politics too. This is helped by being set in the past, but I think it'd be the same if it was in the 90s (as evidenced by the pretty casual present day segments). Barking at the Stars is a story that could be set in any country, any time.

This isn't to say the film isn't Serbian, however. It's proud of its home, and is full of humour designed to appeal to locals most of all.

Barking at the Stars is a funny move, with clever wordplay, great dialogue, and frequently amusing interactions. Some of the best scenes are in the classroom, from the impromptu workouts, showing off, to the animal pranks, and the teacher who doesn't realise all the chairs are empty. There's a level of intelligence here too that I appreciated. Where else can you get teenagers who know who Sisyphus is, and apply his struggles in real life by carting boulders around?

The cast here is a highlight. Philosopher, as he's nicknamed, is a fun main character. He's a tenacious and clever guy, always quick with wit and charm, and while he might border on being a pushy kind of Casanova to some viewers, he handles everything well. The romance between he and Danica is sweet, and funny.

Danica meanwhile is a good love interest. She's likeable, and she's clearly into Philosopher, despite a rocky beginning. Their romance is benefited from seeing the present day sections, where they're absolutely lovey dovey. It gets you curious to see how this couple turns from frosty to adoring.

The rest of the cast is full of distinctive characters. The students are  The most memorable is Tupa, a somewhat crazy sportsman, who gets experience by boxing on train tracks. Typical Serbian youth. When you have no kangaroos to box, you spar with trains instead! Philosopher's brother probably coulda appeared more, but it's not bad. Overall there aren't really any weak links among the cast, and they look distinct enough to never get mixed up.

The teachers/adults are a great bunch too. There's the strict and militant sports coach, a surprisingly young newcomer, much to the amazement of the boys, a [nervous] principal, and more. They each get their moments, even if some appear less than others. A resident policeman gets a few funny moments too.

The cast do great jobs, inhabiting their characters well. Some standout performances are Dragan Mićanović and Nataša Tapušković as Philosopher and Danica, Nikola Đuričko as the = boxer Tupa, and Dragan Jovanović as the kooky coach. Serbian acting veteran Nikola Simić doesn't appear as much as I would've liked, but still makes the most of his screentime, and is always visually distinctive. The same goes for Mihajlo Paskaljević as the local bartender Belmondo.

The soundtrack to Barking at the Stars is great, regardless of time period. It evokes the romantic drive-in of the 1950s, in the way movies like Grease are often going for. It succeeds brilliantly, and whether these are archive tunes or composed for the film, they all sound good, and complement the story perfectly. They give a genuine air of nostalgia.

Barking at the Stars has remained a classic for good reason. It's the perfect mix of funny, nostalgic, and sweet, and serves as a perfect introduction to Serbian cinema. If you're nervous about all of the weirder movies] that might abound, this is a great spot to dip your toe into.

My Sweet Little Village (1985)

 It's a bit of a joke among some moviegoers that all Czech cinema is comprised of middle aged men drinking beer and philosophising. Having seen a bunch, I can confirm this couldn't be further from the truth, but these kinds of movies are definitely present and very popular. Director Jiri Menzel specialised in them during his varied filmography, with one of the most loved being My Sweet Little Village...

Otik is a mentally challenged but happy man, working a simple job as a truck driver's assistant to Mr. Pavek. Everyone in the village knows each-other, and their various goals and issues. These range from minor, to major, such as an accident prone doctor who can't seem to handle cars, and an unfaithful wife carrying on. A change seems bound to come when an exasperated Pavek refuses to work with Otik anymore, and the young man answers a call to work in the big city...

My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má Středisková) is deserving of its reputation as a Czech classic, and even managed to be seen in America. The plot is exactly what you would imagine it to be, and there aren't many surprises, but not in a bad way. It's an effective story, and always enjoyable seeing where it goes.

The move focuses on the everyday life of this small village, exploring the lives, loves, and problems of its inhabitants. They've got plenty of quirks and defects between them, as well as positive sides. I liked this, and think the film does a good job of making this town feel like a living breathing place. The only problem was it leaves Otik a bit in the dust. I understand that it might have been a little difficult having the film focus on a main character who barely speaks and doesn't interact normally, but he is still the lead, and it's strange whenever he disappears for long stretches.

Otik is simpleminded and prone to mistakes, but is likeable all the same, and you feel bad for the guy when Pavek attempts to ditch him. It's admirable seeing how Otik tries forging his own path, though his neighbours feel he's not up for the challenge, and would be better off in his comfortable hometown among friends, than alone in a big unfriendly city. Pavek meanwhile is a good guy, with his own family to juggle, and a frustration with Otik that others try and dissuade him of. One thing I really liked about Pavek is how quick he is to defend Otik even when he hasn't forgiven him yet for past blunders. It feels realistic, and gives Pavek a multidimensional feel.

The remainder of the cast range from amusing to assholes, such as the philanderous spouse, and her brutish husband. Pavek's son doesn't get a lot of screentime, and while he's fine early on, his story in the last act felt unnecessary. It was a bit down for the film, especially an otherwise positive last act. It also felt completely out of nowhere, and is forgotten pretty quickly. It either should've been threaded in more organically, or just left out altogether.

Another notable character is the town doctor. A sensible fellow who often diagnoses his patients' problems, both physical and mental. He's a funny guy, while also knowing to give serious advice (like when he threatens to beat the shit out of one guy if he abuses his wife). Despite showing wisdom in these areas, the doc is a total klutz with his vehicular affairs, constantly getting into scrapes and crashes, culminating in some great moments later on.

My Sweet Little Village has seen comparisons to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, but really this is only visual. The movie isn't a double act comedy like those. In some ways it maybe could have benefited from such scenes, but I am glad it isn't a broad comedy farce.

Hungarian actor Janos Ban does great as Otik, delivering his performance mostly with expressions than dialogue. He's visually distinctive and unusual (this is a positive for sure), and reminded me of George Formby. Marian Labuda is a good straight man as Pavek, and shares good chemistry with Ban, even if they're unfortunately not often onscreen in the midsection. Libuše Šafránková  has a surprisingly tarty role, and does well. Petr Čepek  as is Rudolf Hrušínský as the town doctor.

My Sweet Little Village has  themes, such as city life vs country. It doesn't insult the city, instead simply extolling the virtues of small town life (while also not portraying its citizens as all saints). The real villains of the film, if there are any, would be the rich folk who want to take advantage of Otik's departure and move in, doing what they want with this rustic paradise.

Filmed on location in a real life village, the film looks great, and is always convincing. We see wide rolling fields, nice old buildings, a  lakeside, and other nice sights. It succeeds completely in making you want to visit or live in such a place, for me at least.

There's a lovely score here, with some calming and tranquil pastoral beats. There are also a few groovy tunes in the background of a few scenes, namely some Michal David songs. I recognised his voice instantly, which I'm pretty sure grants me immediate Czech citizenship.

I think Czechoslovakian cinema is full of treats, and many kinds of genres. My Sweet Little Village in particular lives up to its title, and is a good portrayal of its country, and the movies it can deliver the world...