Monthly Archives: September 2011

New Feature: Hall of Greats

Hello everyone,

Today I’m introducing a new type of article called Hall of Greats.  This is for films that I feel deserve recognition for superior quality, and need more than a review to do so.  Films in the Hall of Greats get an article slightly longer and more in-depth than a normal review, and are only inducted if they are among the very best films I have seen, for whatever reason.  When asked what some of my favorite movies are, these are the films that first come to mind. The first film to receive this honor is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2010 picture Micmacs.  Enjoy!

Hall of Greats: Micmacs

Micmacs (2010) centers around Bazil (Danny Boon), a cinema lover and video store clerk left without a father by a mine in Africa.  One night, a shootout goes down outside Bazil’s video store and a stray bullet gets lodged in his forehead.  The doctors flip a coin and decide to leave the bullet in, though at any moment Bazil could suddenly die from the bullet.  Bazil is released from the hospital and finds himself homeless and jobless, with all of his possessions stolen during his time away.  He spends several weeks living on the streets, making money through small street performances, until his runs into a man named Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who brings Bazil to a family that lives in a junkyard and makes useful things out of trash and scrap.  Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist, Remington (Omar Sy) still utilizes his ethnographer roots and speaks almost exclusively in old sayings, Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) can look at any person or object and instantly determine the dimensions, Fracasse (Dominique Pinon) is a human cannonball, Petit Pierre (Michel Cremades) makes moving sculptures and does not talk, and Mama Chow (Yolanda Moreau) cooks and looks after everyone in the family.

During a daily round of junk collection, Bazil stumbles upon two buildings across the street from each other.  One is responsible for the bullet lodged in his brain, and the other manufactured the land mine that killed his father. After attempting to enter each establishment and encountering the owners of the companies, Nicolas Thibault De Fenouillet (Andre Dussolier) and Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie), Bazil decides that he must take down the two superpowers and stop them from continuing to fund the deaths of millions.  Naturally, he intends to pit them against each other. With the help of his new family, he sets into motion a hugely elaborate scheme to dethrone Nicolas and Francois.

Realistically, Micmacs deals with the extremely serious themes of arms dealing and dirty wars.  The film does not dance around the fact that Nicolas and Nicolas are the villains of the story.  Despite this, Micmacs retains a fairly whimsical, bubbly tone that is not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier film Amelie.  Like that film, Micmacs is shot with very warm colors and energetic editing. Jeuent’s style is distinctive and unlike anyone else working today, giving his film a lightness that simultaneously does not disregard the seriousness of the subject matter at hand.  Even so, it has no problem with poking fun at these issues: after Bazil is shot, the doctors flip a coin to determine whether they should attempt to remove the bullet from Bazil’s brain, even making a couple of wry jokes at the expense of their patient.  A homeless Bazil is invited to a soup kitchen of sorts, but is too embarrassed to be homeless and instead pretends that he needs a taxi.  Of course, he does not, and cannot even afford the taxi, so he takes to trying to hide behind it.  It’s a tragically goofy scene.  Francois and Nicolas are almost comically evil in their actions, hobbies (one of them collects the body parts of famous people from history), and absurd outbursts of extreme anger.  If either one of them had a handlebar mustache, he would undoubtedly be twirling it as hard as possible.

“Micmacs à tire-larigot”, the film’s full French title, translates literally to “Non-stop shenanigans”.  The title is earned in full during the scene in which Bazil meets his adoptive family.  They each are introduced into the story via their curious talents, and the scenes that take place in the home thereafter are largely comprised of the family members each fulfilling their archetypal roles, bickering affectionately, and plotting how to take down Nicolas and Francois. Once the family sets their plan into motion to dethrone the arms dealers, it erupts into an incredibly satisfying Ocean’s 11-esque, hilariously complex scheme that comprises countless steps and phases.  The inevitable relationship that develops between Bazil and Elastic Girl is nothing short of adorable, starting with arguments and progressing gradually through flirtatiousness.

Supplemental to this whole airy, bright style are the visual and audio elements of the film.  Micmacs is shot with almost exclusively warm filters.  Everything is bright and happy visually, and every scene seems to just glow.  The attention to detail in Jeunet’s mise-en-scene is stunning, and each of the several times I have seen the film has yielded another small detail in the frame that I had never noticed before.  Little stylistic touches (such as a security camera that literally performs a double-take, or small picture-in-picture interpretations of Bazil’s mental processes) are everywhere.  Any director that has such an attentive eye when it comes to setting up his shot deserves no less than the highest of praise.  The bright style that is established so strongly in the visual style of the film goes hand-in-hand with the soundtrack by Raphael Beau.  Beau, a schoolteacher who prior to this film had no experience with scoring, delivers a stunningly delightful soundtrack comprised of piano, accordion, and a collection of improvised percussion sounds.  It’s really, really good, and I’ve had “Last Flight” as my ringtone for almost a full year now.

One of the things Micmacs does best is play with audience expectations.  One of the movie’s many great scenes involves a montage of the two villains eating dinner in their respective houses.  Coincidentally, they are each dining on shrimp.  While Francois, who at this point in the film has worked himself into an almost perpetual temper, viciously shells his food before chomping down on it, Nicolas carefully removes the shells on his before placing it onto his plate.  The camera cuts between Nicolas and his wife looking at each other, and their scene is a bit more relaxed than that of Francois.  The scene culminates with Nicolas picking up his fork, holding it above his carefully-arranged shrimp on his plate…and then spearing no fewer than five or six on the fork and stuffing all of them into his mouth at once.  Scenes play out differently than one would expect, though the end result is considerably more satisfying than the original expectation.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s love for cinema shines through in Micmacs.  At the start of the film, an adult Bazil works at a video store and is spending his evening watching The Big Sleep and reciting the dialogue along with the characters.  Following the bullet to the head, Bazil stumbles back into the store and collapses, as the camera moves towards and into the television, which flashes “The End” and fades into a black-and-white opening credits sequence which, combined with the fanfare that plays during the sequence, is distinctly 40s in style.  Jeunet has also cited films such as Toy Story and other Disney films as inspiration for his own.  Robert De Niro (played by a French actor here) is literally a character in the film for about twenty seconds, reciting the famous Travis Bickle line, “you talkin’ to me?”, and a scene toward the end of the film is a direct homage to Mission: Impossible.  Delightfully, Micmacs contains some elements of the silent film.  Though there is plenty of wonderful dialogue, the actors are all magnificently expressive physically, with exaggerated facial and body expressions.  Tight close-ups of the actors’ faces are commonplace in the film as well, highlighting the emphasis on physical comedy. Cinemaphiles will find themselves in heaven here.

Micmacs is a non-stop parade of visual and aural delights, a treasure trove of purely euphoric elements.  There’s just so much to love about this film; there is truly nothing else remotely like it, and it’s impossible not to smile through the whole thing.  The cast is immensely lovable and the whole film feels like an intricate work of art.  This is French filmmaking at its very best, and a completely delightful piece of happiness that should not be skipped.

Drive (Review)

Drive is a masterpiece of outstanding craftsmanship across the board and the uncontested front-runner for the best film of the year. 

Score: ***** (out of 5)

Rated: R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.

That “sum up” line took a while to write, largely because it is difficult to put into words exactly what makes Drive so good and still do the film justice.  The first solid bits of news concerning Drive came out of the Cannes film festival, where director Nicolas Winding Refn not only was awarded the Best Director accolade, but his film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, which goes to the festival’s absolute best film.  Subsequent buzz for the film was almost overwhelmingly positive, with little to no negative opinions on the film at all.  It seemed like the film was snowballing into a behemoth of impossibly high expectations, setting itself up to be a disappointment before even releasing.  I myself remained breathlessly excited to see it, convinced I would still love it despite the massive hype.  For some reasons I was expecting and some I was not, Drive shattered all of my expectations to be the best movie I’ve seen since, well, I Saw the Devil.

Drive follows a nameless stunt car driver (Ryan Gosling) who also works at a garage owned by his mentor (Bryan Cranston) and moonlights as a getaway driver.  He waits outside for five minutes exactly.  If the job isn’t over by then he’s gone.  If the criminals make it to the car in that window, he is their driver until they are safe.  Driver does not carry a gun, either.  All he does is drive.  He’s a stoic, enigmatic character of very few words, creating a silent tension that is not lost on the people he interacts with.  The first person to crack his shell is a young woman who lives down the hall named Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) is in prison.  A sweet, slightly awkward relationship develops between them, as if they were two youngsters that have feelings for each other.  When Standard is released from prison, his initial suspicion of Driver turns to trust, and he reveals to Driver that he owes money to some mobsters that are attempting to force Standard to rob a pawn shop.  Driver agrees to help, and as these things often do in these sorts of movies, the job goes horribly awry and Driver finds himself in the crosshairs of the mobsters.  He also tangles with a world-weary entrepreneur (Albert Brooks) and his thuggish business partner (Ron Perlman).

The acting throughout Drive is incredibly impressive.  Driver in particular is extremely cool, and Gosling’s portrayal of him as a man with a heart and soul that can be triggered to perform moments of extreme violence is what–ahem–drives the film (I’m sorry). In fact, nothing of the brutality of the character is even seen until about a third of the way through the film, and it only first rears its head through one line.  Gosling’s delivery of the line is chilling and awesome. He delivers plenty of nuance through subtle displays of emotion and explosions of quite rage, a dichotomy that makes the character a loving figure one moment and a force of nature the next.  If Gosling does not get any formal recognition for his performance, it would be a travesty. His romance with Irene is slightly awkward and beautifully natural. The rest of the cast is also fantastic, from Cranston lending his character the quiet desperation of a man who is long past his prime, to Albert Brooks, a normally comedic actor who makes for a menacing villain that doesn’t quite seem to enjoy what he does, and only commits atrocities out of necessity.

Dialogue in Drive is kept to a premium, just as in the James Sallis novel the film is based upon.  There is not a single line in the film that is wasted, and everything that is said is done so for a reason.  This minimalist scripting works for the quiet tension, and scenes that feature less dialogue, such as those between Driver and Irene, require Gosling and Mulligan to fill the negative space with physical acting, be it a loving gaze or embarrassed smile.  It also allows for Cliff Martinez’s cool 80’s-esque electronica score and the small selection of licensed music to really pop.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who prior to this helmed the excellent Bronson and Valhalla Rising, continues to hone what may very well be his most impressive talent: delivering measured, impactful violence.  Drive is not an action film.  There are a couple of extremely well shot chases, but Drive is no more an action film than The Godfather; and like that film, this one is more of a drama that has occasional and startling eruptions of violence.  What violence there is in the film is shocking and graphic.  Refn makes the sparse killings feel absolutely real and incredibly visceral.  The much-hyped elevator scene from the trailer is every bit as alarmingly violent as you would expect, and some characters meet grisly ends in abrupt and genuinely startling ways.  These deaths, delivered in rapid fashion, would normally begin to desensitize a viewer, but instead Refn only lets it hit intermittently, and this measured pacing of murder ensures that every death feels like a sharp blow to the head.  Refn lets the tension in his film build slowly, like a revving engine, leading to uncomfortably quiet moments and a finale that will have every nerve screaming. The climax in which two characters interact is almost unbearably intense, and culminates in an immensely satisfying and very creatively filmed showdown, followed by an equally satisfying epilogue.

It’s important to note the distinction between a 4.5 and a 5-star rating.  4.5 stars signify a film that is completely great, but may lack something that made it that much better to secure it as a 5-star film.  A rating of 5 stars highlights a film that is very nearly flawless, and it is a benchmark that is incredibly difficult to reach.  The perfect acting from the entire cast, Refn’s brilliant direction, and the wonderfully minimalist script, however, make it impossible to to make any other statement: Drive is that film.