Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bangers n' Mash 102: The 2016 Phantom Awards

After a long delay, the Bangers n' Mash Show is finally back. Since it's January, and the first episode of the new year, it's time for the Phantom Awards! It's our annual award show for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films, looking back at some of our favorite films of the year.

We did something a little different this year. Though the audio is a bit jarring, I think the result is the best Phantom Awards we've ever done. Since JD hates doing these - he doesn't see nearly as many movies as I do - I decided to recruit some friends from the Dissolve Facebook group as "audio presenters," helping to round out the show. It's was so great to have some serious film fans on the show, sharing their thoughts and busting the quality of the episode.
 


Anyway, hopefully the podcast will be back on track from here on, with more frequent episodes. And since February begins tomorrow, my month-long Oscar movie marathon will begin as well. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 30, 2017

NO ENCORES: Return to Oz (1985)


1. Return to Oz (1985)
Director: Walter Murch


In the early eighties, Disney was not the unstoppable juggernaut it is today. In an attempt to reach new audiences, the company produced darker films like “The Black Hole,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” “Dragonslayer,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Black Cauldron.” Each of these films are, to different degrees, cult classics today. Back then, none of them connected with audiences. No film sums up this experimental, edgier era of Disney better then “Return to Oz.” Produced just as Disney's option on several of Frank. L. Baum's “Oz” books were ready to lapse – and pass into the public domain soon afterwards –  “Return to Oz” was the directorial debut of editor Walter Murch. After a fraught production and poor box office, Murch never directed another feature film. In the years since, “Return to Oz” has developed a devoted following for many of the same reasons it flopped back in 1985. 

Several months have passed since Dorothy Gale's first journey to the land of Oz. After listening to her stories, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry worry the girl has lost her mind. She's carted off to a mental hospital. Frightened, Dorothy flees and is caught up in a storm. She awakens in an Oz very different from the one she remembers. The fearsome Nome King and the witch Mombi has taken over the Kingdom, broken up the yellow brick road, turned Dorothy's friend to stone, and destroy the Emerald City. Dorothy must partner with a new trio of friends if she hopes to restore Oz to its former glory.

“Return to Oz” was marketed as, and considered by some to be, a sequel to 1939's “The Wizard of Oz.” However, from the beginning, Murch set out to make a very different version of Oz. His film isn't a musical. The versions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion seen here do not resemble their portrayals in that film. Instead, their appearances are inspired by the illustrations from Baum's books. Indeed, “Return to Oz” draws more from Baum's novels then that the most famous film version. The result is a darker, stranger film then audiences were likely expecting at the time. That's right, readers. Studios were making “dark and gritty” reboots even back in 1985.

In many ways, Murch even seems to be deconstructing MGM's “Oz.” We've seen Dorothy awaken from her adventure in Oz so many times, claiming to recognize people from her dream. It was such a story book ending that the next step that “Return to Oz” takes – Dorothy gets thrown into an insane asylum – seems almost blasphemous. Murch's film continues in that unsentimental direction, by portraying the hospital as bleak and dangerous. The script then proceeds to destroy some of the original film's most famous iconography. The yellow brick road, Emerald City, and Dorothy's trio of companions are all gone. There's not a munchkin in sight. Even Dorothy's ruby slippers – this film's sole nod to the 1939 version – are in the possession of a villain. The implication is clear. This isn't your dad's Oz.

In another show of fidelity to Baum's books, Dorothy is an actual little girl, instead of a teenage Judy Garland with strapped down breasts. She's played by Fairuza Balk, in her theatrical film debut. Even years before “The Craft” would transform her into a goth icon, there's something a little different about Fairuza. Her blue eyes, piercing even back then, emphasizes her status as an innocent child. Despite this, Balk's Dorothy is never a shrieking victim. She remains strong, even when faced with terrifying odds. Ultimately, her innate ability to detect the truth and her willingness to love and trust strangers helps save the day.

But none of that is why people remember “Return to Oz” so vividly. Instead, the movie endures as a singular creator of kindertrauma. Lots of kids rented this movie or watched it on TV, probably expecting something more akin to the famous 1939 version. Instead, they got a film full of creepy ass imagery. Such as the Wheelers. The henchmen of the main villains, they are clown-like men with wheels on her hands and feet. They wear helmets with sculpted faces atop their heads. The Wheelers cackle madly as they glide into view. Even watching as an adult, their initial appearance can be startling. The distorted long limbs, the double faces, the creepy laughter combines to make a creatures that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie.

And if the Wheelers didn't traumatize you, Princess Mombi probably did. A composite of two characters from Baum's books, she makes the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys look quint. Bizarrely, Mombi is naturally headless. Instead, she keeps a collection of separate heads, switching them out depending on what her mood is. The film does not downplay the inherent freakiness of this idea. Mombi lines her hallway with her spare head, which often stare blankly. It builds towards an especially spooky moment where a disembodied head screams at Dorothy, alerting Mombi's headless body to the girl's deception. Murch's direction is simultaneously stark and surreal, emphasizing the horror of this scenario.

“Return to Oz” isn't all headless witches and Wheelers. Dorothy does make some friends on her adventure. My favorite of which is Jack Pumpkinhead. Relating to the jack o' latern Dorothy plays with in an early scene, Jack is a classical example of the thin, pumpkinheaded scarecrow. (Jack Skellington is but one obvious homage.) Despite his towering height, Jack has a child's mind. He sees Dorothy as a mother figure and even calls her Mom. He stumbles into trouble, frequently needing rescuing.  Brian Henson's vocal performance fits the character's child-like personality.

Dorothy's other friends verge along similarly odd lines. Tik-Tok is a rotund robot soldier, who must be kept wound up. If he ever winds down, he begins to speak in gibberish or slow to a stop. Even when functioning, Tik-Tok is a bit of an odd character, such as when he spins around to fight off Wheelers. In lieu of Toto, a talking chicken named Billina accompanies Dorothy. By the far the least interesting of Dorothy's companions, the film still miens an odd energy from the sight of a talking chicken. The oddest of all her friends is the Gump, a moose like creature. Or, at least, the head of one. Dorothy assembles his body out of items lying around Mombi's castle and brings him to life with a magical dust. Later, his flying couch-body falls apart, leaving just the talking moose head. It's such an odd character, further emphasizes by his tendency to reference his previous life.

You don't hear nearly as much about the second half of “Return to Oz” as the first. Dorothy and her friends encounter the Nome King, a entity made of stone responsible for wrecking Oz. After the Wheelers and headless Mombi, even someone as imposing as the Nome King tends to look less threatening. But he's still a pretty great villain. Continuing the film's unreal tone, he first appears as a series of faces appearing in the rock, created via shifting, unearthly stop motion. When he appears in the flesh, it's as a lime stone caked Nicol Williamson. (Though Williamson's voice is so heavily distorted, he sounds more like James Earl Jones.) Like a classical fairy, he likes to play games, transforming Dorothy's pals into emerald ornaments. When angered, he morphs into a moving monster, lit by fiery lava below, threatening to eat people. I'm saying, he's still pretty freaky.

If there's one way in which “Return to Oz” is too faithful to Baum's books, it's the author's love of deus ex machina endings. You know how a randomly applied splash of water was enough to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West? The Nome King, we find out at the very end of the movie, has a weakness to chicken eggs. The film does its best to foreshadow this. The Wheelers make a few grave references to how dangerous the chicken is. But it still comes out of nowhere, providing an easy escape for our lead characters just when their situation looks hopeless.

It's clear that “Return to Oz” was not a cheap production. The set designs are immersive and impressive. The ruined Emerald City is a memorable sight, composed of shattered buildings and leaning structures. Mombi's castle is a similarly memorable sight, stretching in the opposite direction of being so organized it becomes inhuman. Even something as simple as a mountain side, where Dorothy enters the realm of the Nome King, is brought to life with vivid, memorable detail. When the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion appear in the film, they are brought to life as elaborate puppets. They smile but still seem slightly strange, an effect all the elaborate creatures in the movie share.

I first heard of “Return to Oz” in grade school, when the kid I sat next to on the bus described it to me. At the time, I thought the movie sounded so bizarre that I doubted it was real. (It didn't help that my state mate threw in some exaggerated details, like Mombi attaching her head to a giant spider.) Thanks to the internet, I soon learned the film did indeed exist. I don't know what took me so long to catch up with it. “Return to Oz” is, at times, too poised between kid-friendly fantasy and surreal horror movie. Despite its flaws, Murch's film features so many unforgettable sights that I can't help but be fascinated by it. I know why he wouldn't direct another film but sincerely wish he would, if only to see what other indelible images are trapped inside his head. [8/10]

Saturday, January 28, 2017

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)


When I was a kid, I went through a weird Don Knotts phase. At the time, I don't think my appreciation was based on anything more then thinking this scrawny guy with the funny voice was amusing. Looking back, I suspect I related to Knotts' archetypal role as a frustrated nerd, attempting to succeed in a complicated world. Naturally, as someone who also loved animation and was interested in the ocean, I was drawn to “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” Even as a kid, I found this one to be a bit boring. If “Mr. Limpet” couldn't occupy a child, what are the odds of it entertaining an adult? Which raises the question: Why do I own this?

Henry Limpet doesn't have much going for him. He wishes to serve in World War II but his bad eye sight marks him 4-F. His wife doesn't care for Henry's bookish, withdrawn ways. She seemingly prefers Limpet's braggart buddy, George, who recently enlisted. Henry's greatest passion is fish. He studies the history and evolution of fish, sings songs to his fish tank, and even wishes about becoming a fish. In an unlikely twist of fate, that last desire comes to pass. After falling off the dock, Limpet is transformed into a fish. His life only gets stranger from there.

It's easy to see why a kid would drift away during the first twenty minutes of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” The human focused scenes of the first third are goofy, disposable stuff. Limpet's wife is a shrew, clearly totally disinterested in understanding or emphasizing with him. His buffoonish best friend, who considers himself a top secret Navy officer even though he's a simple machinist, constantly snipes at Limpet. A lot of the comedic gags here are very silly, such as Limpet placing a pet goldfish in the office water cooler or allowing the fish tank to overflow while zoning out. Through it all, Don Knotts' easy going, totally genuine charm keeps the viewer invested. He makes the silly script a lot easier to swallow.

Once Limpet makes his incredible transformation, the film perks up considerably. This was the first of many voice over roles for Knotts. He's a natural at it, making a cartoon fish as lively a character as his flesh-and-blood counterpart. Limpet's adventures in the sea are not uncommon for family flicks of the day. Henry befriends a hermit crab, which he names Crusty, soon after becoming a fish. He later rescues a female fish who immediately invites him to the spawning ground. (This may sound edgy for a family flick from 1964 but consider the decidedly unsexy way fish reproduce.) The two fish later claim to love each other, even though an earlier scene established that marine life doesn't even understand first names as a concept. A pivotal climatic scene involves Limpet loosing his glasses... Even though I'm pretty sure fish don't have to worry about astigmatism. Though all very silly, the script is fleet-footed enough, keeping the audience invested in this nonsensical business.

Even stranger, that admittedly nutty premise is not the weirdest thing about “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” The film eventually becomes a piece of propaganda for a war that was over two decades before it even came out. As a fish, Mr. Limpet can make a deafening, sonar like noise. Still determined to serve his country, Limpet uses this ability to help the U.S. Navy uncover German U-Boats. This plot turn leads to a lot of comical hand grasping among the military officials. Limpet also manages to piss the Nazis off so much that they design torpedoes specifically to seek him out. (Leading to a rather inevitable Limpet mine pun.) This also leads to a montage of Limpet fantasizing himself as a war hero, marching in a parade and being on magazine covers. Yes, he's still a fish. It's a pretty weird, unexpected turn for a goofy kids movie.

Why Do I Own This?: “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” is as goofy a flick as you're likely to find. It's handful of songs – yes, this is a musical of sorts – are all rather forgettable. The film ends on a bizarre, rather unpromising sequel hook, where Limpet is apparently training porpoises to be more intelligent. Despite these flaws, Knotts' charm keeps the movie afloat. The animation is lively, cartoony but colorful for its time. It's not too surprising that the film would become something of a cult classic over the years, even prompting talks of a terrifying looking remake at one point. “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” isn't the proudest addition to my DVD collection but I hardly regret owning it. It's not too bad at all. [7/10]

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2014)


8. The Smell of Us

If Larry Clark's most recent films can be said to have a connecting fiber - besides, you know, the stuff that is in all of his movies – it is an interest in new locations. “Marfa Girls” was set in an obscure small town in Texas. “The Smell of Us,” his newest feature, is set in Paris. “The Smell of Us” was released in French theaters in 2015. As far as I can tell, it has yet to receive an American release. Which is what imported DVDs are for, friends. Maybe changing the setting is especially important, since Clark's intense interest in his favorite subjects – young people having sex and behaving badly – remains ever present.

“The Smell of Us” follows a collection of Parisian teenagers. The kids' parents are hardly present. Instead, the teens spend their time skateboarding, doing drugs, having sex, and living among themselves. Soon, the focus centers in on Maths. He works as an internet escort, primarily catering to older men. He lives with JP, a male friend that is romantically interested in him. Despite his work, Maths claims to be only “gay for pay.” Aside from these two, other characters float in and out of the plot.

If some directors like to seek out new topics and ideas, Larry Clark is perfectly happy exploring the same issues he always has. “The Smell of Us” is a collaboration with a French poet named Scribe. There was an accompanying photo project and I'm not sure if the film arose out of that or the other way around. Either way, the director is once again seeking to capture the lives of disaffected young people as they happen. And it goes without saying that the teens are having lots of sex, doing lots of drugs, and getting into trouble. At times, the film reminds me of “Kids” and “Ken Park,” showing the director repeating himself.

Arising out of the repetition of teenage sex and drugs is an occasionally interesting visual. Clark expounds on the “on-the-street” direction he utilized in “Marfa Girl.” The hand held work often focuses on the teen's faces and bodies. Clark zooms in on body parts until it almost becomes an abstract shape. When the far shots emerge, the teenage characters become figures in open spaces. Sometimes, the areas around the characters seem almost as important to the filmmaker as the particulars of their young bodies. Say what you will about Clark but his instincts as a photographer are as strong as ever.

If you're wondering what the title of the film means, it's not metaphor or anything. “The Smell of Us” is intently focused on the physicality of its character in a very visceral way. The teenagers do smell each other several times. One of Maths' male clients has a foot fetish, which leads to an extended scene of the man sucking the boy's toes. Another, fairly unimportant scene has a teenage girl squatting and urinating on the street. There are close-ups on butts and crotches. For lack of a better word, this is an intensely “smelly” movie. It's a grungy, splanchnic motion picture, intent on sharing the sights and smells of its story on the viewer. Clark is indulging his fetishes in a way that borders creepy even more then usual.

Something that is a little interesting is the role the internet plays in the film. Cell phones and social media weren't around when Clark started making his exploitation epics. In “The Smell of Us,” the kids are always on-line. One character is constantly recording everything with his cell phone. Two of the side characters decide to get into escorting after seeing an ad on a porn site. Another scene has Maths and JP passing their laptops back and forth like a good book. At one point, Clark even adopts the view of a pixelated, glitching YouTube video. If you consider all of the director's movies as one long variation on a theme, “The Smell of Us” shows how technology has changed the way young people interact.

Bisexuality is a topic that has cropped up in Clark's movies, most prominently in “Bully.” Maths and JP's relationship is slightly less dysfunctional then Bobby Kent and Marty's. But only slightly. Maths seems deeply confused by his sexuality. When he has sex with male clients, he zones out, his mind far away from his body. Yet the confines of his relationship with JP are undefined. Sometimes, he rejects his friend's sexual advances, pushing him back and calling him queer. Other times, he's more accepting, kissing or touching him. It's clear Maths doesn't always agree with what his body does. After waking up with some morning wood, he immediately takes a cold shower. Clark, sadly, doesn't expand on these ideas. He doesn't make a point about how teen sexuality can be fluid or undefined. It's just another element in his tapestry of entwined body parts.

“The Smell of Us” is the director's most explicit film since “Ken Park.” The film features unsimulated gay and straight sex acts, though body doubles are obviously utilized for the main actors. One male-on-male scene stretches on to gratuitous lengths. Aside from the aforementioned urination and toe sucking, there's other gross stuff in the film. One of Maths' escort friends services an elderly woman, the camera lingering on her aged, saggy body. The climax of the film features Maths' mother – the first time she's appeared in the movie, by the way – attempting to seduce her own son. Clark got seemingly the most unphotogenic old woman possible to play this part. There's not much point beyond these provocations. This is Clark at his worst, attempting to shock the audience for shock's sake.

A film devoted solely to Maths' profession and his relationship with JP probably wouldn't be able to fill out even a fairly short 83 minute run time. In order to pad the movie out to feature length, a subplot devoted to two of their friends, Pacman and Guillaume. Attempting to tie into the main story, Guillaume also begins to work as a male escort. He only sees female clients, which I imagine would limit his business. While the main story line wanders, at least there's some sort of motivation behind it. These additional scenes are aimless, not contributing to the main story in anyway.

Aside from barely legal nudity, skateboarding seems to be another fascination for Larry Clark. As in “Kids,” “Ken Park,” and probably a few others I'm forgetting, most of the characters are fans of this past time. Naturally, long scenes in the movie feature the kids skateboarding. In one moment, Clark even attaches his camera to a speeding board. Despite the director's stated desire to capture teens being themselves, these are the only moments where he really succeeds in that goal. These scenes are natural and unrehearsed, such as when a teen falls and scratches his arm or smashes a board.

The skateboarding sequences are often accompanied by loud rock music. “The Smell of Us” frequently abandons plot totally in favor of musical montages. There are long scenes of the characters dancing at a party, watching a couple while they have sex, or just waste time on the streets. It doesn't advance the plot any but the soundtrack does lend a certain energy. If the director was attempting to create an audio-visual experience, more then a narrative plot, he's almost successful during these montages.

Yet the pull towards having an actual story frequently interrupts whatever tonal flow Larry Clark was going for. The unnerving scene between Maths and his mother seems like an odd attempt by Clark to justify the characters' messed up lives. That's the kind of realization the filmmaker usually avoids. Maths and JP's relationship then ends in a sudden, shocking way. After that, “The Smell of Us” continues on for a few minutes, featuring a scene where the youths get together and set a car on fire. There's no real resolution. The movie just ends. It's frustrating.

“The Smell of Us” has one or two interesting moments. But Clark's attempt to compromise between a totally plotless mood piece and a typical “reckless teens” story creates an awkward experience that isn't very satisfying. The director's unwillingness to move past fucking and fighting young adults is one thing. He cast himself in the film as a dirty old man, leering at the teens, which shows he's at least self-aware about his obsession. That Clark is still trying to shock his viewer is another, disappointing matter. All together, even fans will probably have trouble defending this one. [Grade: C]

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Nominations and Predictions



Traditionally, I open these Oscar write-ups by acknowledging what a bloated, self congratulatory ceremony the Oscars are. About how they don't reflect which films are best, much less the public's taste. Or maybe something about how every time an Academy member opens their mouths, they make the voting body seem shallow, idiotic, and totally unappreciative of the arts.

It's not that these statements are any less true this year then they always are. Yet during a time when a sociopathic narcissist is in the White House, already making efforts to suppress the press and persecute minorities, I need the distraction of Oscar seasons now more then ever. I woke up yesterday like a kid on Christmas. Just like that kid, I had a good idea of what surprises awaited me. That doesn't make the rush of Oscar season – the one time of year when people who don't even care about movies show at least a passing interest in the subject – any less exciting.

Yes, I like the glitz and the glamour. I like the anticipation. I even like sitting down and watching the broadcast, even though it's almost always terrible. I just can't lie. Oscar season is upon us and I love it. Let's look at who is nominated while I give my utterly uninformed predictions.


BEST PICTURE:

After Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash” blew me away two years, I looked into what the director was up to next. Oh, a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling? That sounds fun! I never expected “La La Land” to become an awards juggernaut, earn 14 nominations, generate lots of movie nerd in-fighting, and become the clear front runner for Best Picture. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The Oscars is when the movie industry celebrates itself. So, naturally, a glitzy, pretty, feel-good celebration about Los Angeles/homage to classic cinema will win the day.

Is there a chance that anything else will uproot “La La Land's” chances? Probably not but let's look anyway. “Manchester by the Sea” is the kind of respectful, performance based, emotionally charged drama that would probably win in any other year. If the “La La Land” backlash is significant enough, we might have an upset in “Manchester's” favor.

“Moonlight” seems to be the clear favorite among serious movie fans. But I've always considered the film's Oscar chances less then great. A queer centric indie with some experimental elements does not sound like the kind of thing the homogeneous Academy voters would go for. That “Moonlight” has earned several nominations, and will likely win some lesser rewards, is a testament to its critical staying power.

The rest of the Best Picture nominees are made up of critically acclaimed stuff. “Arrival” is this year's “Her” or “The Martian,” a serious-minded science fiction film that broke through with the AMPAS voters. “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Heartbreak Ridge” - thematically big movies about important subjects like race and war made by people the Academy already likes – were guaranteed Best Picture nominations. They are well liked films but they won't win.

There were some surprises among Best Picture. At least, “surprises” in the sense that they were still easy to see coming. “Hell or High Water” is the little movie that could this year, a small film that has gotten to the biggest film event of the year through grit and a mountain of positive buzz. And then there's “Lion,” a movie I hadn't even heard of until a few weeks ago. I still don't know anything about it... Other then it's from the Weinstein Company. And the Weinsteins are awfully good at getting obscure, middling films Oscar attention, whether they deserve them or not.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
La La Land.”



BEST ACTOR:

Best Actor is one of the major categories where “La La Land” isn't looking to dominate. I feel Ryan Gosling – a star beloved by both critics and casual movie goers – has a decent shot at winning but the odds seem to favor Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” In a year without a flashy, physicality heavy front runner (or a long overdue multi-nominee), Affleck's emotionally raw performance seems like the clear winner.

Best Actor did hold one surprise. Andrew Garfield got nominated... For a totally different movie then expected. All the prognosticators favored Garfiled in “Silence,” a movie about an religiously devout man in a conflict heavy area. Instead, Oscar nominated him for “Hacksaw Ridge,” a movie about a religiously devout man in a conflict heavy area. Go figure.

The rest of the category is filled out with reliable stand-bys. The Academy has shown its love for Denzel Washington with two previous wins. Viggo Mortensen, meanwhile, has two nominations to his name. If “Captain Fantastic” or “Fences” had more award season heat, both might've had a chance of pulling off a win. However, “Fences” probably isn't flashy enough and “Captain Fantastic” is relatively overlooked.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea.”



BEST ACTRESS:

There's some solid competition in the Best Actress category. Emma Stone, having rightfully eclipsed Jennifer Lawrence as America's reigning sweetheart, has been the front runner for months. And Stone's effortless charm and utter lovableness will probably lead her to gold.

But consider the competition. Isabelle Huppert seemed like a long shot a few months ago, as “Elle” - a complex, confrontation film from Europe's greatest pervert-gentleman – wouldn't normally be up Oscar's alley. Yet Huppert has scooped up a few awards, on the back of one of the year's most compelling performance. Will she similarly impress the Academy voters? I'm rooting for her but I'll still be surprised if she wins.

Meanwhile, there's Natalie Portman in “Jackie.” If the film had gotten more Academy attention, Portman would be the clear winner. A beloved, previous winner playing an iconic historical figure mired in tragedy? That's cat nip to AMPAS. Portman is still the likely runner up. If Stone's inexperience works against her, Natalie might scoop up a second little gold man.

The newcomer this year is Ruth Negga, for “Loving.” Negga is an up-and-coming character actress with a bright career before her. In a year with less competition, she might've been a more clear winner. Lastly, the Academy pushed out a likely nod for Amy Adams in “Arrival” in order to indulge their annual Meryl Streep fetish. I don't know why Oscar is so obsessed with Streep but “Florence Foster Jenkins” is her twentieth nomination. She won't win though. She better not.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Emma Stone for “La La Land,” with Isabelle Huppert for “Elle” as the dark horse.



BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

There's no explosive, incendiary performance in the Supporting categories this year. No clearly great villains destined for iconic status, like J. K. Simmons' Fletcher or Christoph Waltz' Hans Landa. Instead, Best Supporting Actor is filled with solid work from well liked performers.

Dev Patel in “Lion,” Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water,” and Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” are nominated for films that got Best Picture nods but didn't place in the Lead categories. My gut tells me that Bridges' odds are stronger then must seem to think but the majority of prognosticators are all in on Ali.

Then there's some stragglers. Lucas Hedges, seems to me, got in on the back of “Manchester by the Sea's” hype. The big surprise is Michael Shannon for “Nocturnal Animals.” That film was once considered a Oscar favorite but quickly fell by the wayside. Shannon, meanwhile, is one of the most consistently impressive actors working today. (Not to mention his utterly endearing off-screen antics.) His Oscar is overdue and this might be his best chance. We'll see.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight”



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

If some fresh talent sneaked into the previous two categories, Best Supporting Actress is made up  of established performers. Nicole Kidman and Octiva Spencer have their statues already and the buzz is not with them this year. (Overall, I was surprised “Hidden Figures” didn't make a stronger showing.)

Michelle Williams and Viola Davis were clearly runner-ups in previous years. Williams should've won for “My Year with Marilyn” while only Meryl Streep's black magic rituals prevented Davis from getting an Oscar for “The Help.” Both are great performers but I suspect Davis' bigger style will win out over Williams' typically more muted work.

Naomie Harris, who has done her time in respectable indies like “28 Days Later” and blockbusters like “Skyfall,” might be the runner-up this year. If Davis doesn't power through, Harris could get the award, especially if the voters like “Moonlight” more then I think they will. It wouldn't shock me if there's some weird tide change in Harris' favor over the next month. Right now, I'm betting on Viola.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Viola Davis for “Fences.”



BEST DIRECTOR:

This one's easy. While Oscar has thrown some right hooks at us recently – Inarritu winning Best Director despite “Spotlight' taking Best Picture, Ang Lee's win for “Life of Pi” coming out of nowhere – Best Director and Best Picture usually go hand-in-hand. Damien Chazelle seems primed to go home with a couple of Oscars at the end of next month.

Denis Villeneuve, Kenneth Lonergan, and Barry Jenkins are all respectable choices in this category. Villeneuve is the biggest name but alien movies don't win big prizes. Lonergan is a multi-nominee and could steal Chazelle's award away from him, but his film has less heat currently. Jenkins is an up-and-comer nominated for a divisive film, so his odds aren't great.

Speaking of divisiveness! In another example of “Hacksaw Ridge” stealing a nomination that probably should've gone to “Silence,” Mel Gibson got a Best Director nod over Martin Scorsese. The Academy has proven their love for Mel previously and seem willing to forgive him for his public indiscretions. However, it's clear that he's the odd man out in this category. He won't win. I'm sure his millions of dollar and belief that the Jews control the media will let him sleep at night.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”



BEST WRITING (Original and Adapted):

Out of all the categories, I have the worst luck guessing who will win Best Original and Adapted Screenplay. In the Adapted category, “Arrival” and “Fences” are based on the most high-profile source material. However, since I don't predict a win for “Moonlight' in the bigger categories, writing is probably where it's best chance will be.

The odds of “La La Land” dominating across the board is very likely but “Manchester by the Sea'” is the more “writerly” movie, so it could grab the Original Screenplay award away from Chazelle. “Hell or High Water” is the dark horse choice while I'm honestly surprised that “20th Century Woman” - which received no other nominations – and a film as fiercely weird as “The Lobster” got nominated at all.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
Manchester By the Sea” and “Moonlight



MUSIC:

Being a critically acclaimed musical, it's not surprising that “La La Land” is looking to dominate the singing-and-dancing categories too. But I think Best Song may not be a slam dunk for that flick. Yes “Fools Who Dream” is achingly beautiful and “City of Stars” effectively mixes melancholy and humor. The former is probably the most likely choice.

Yet a film getting multiple nominees in one category has been known to split the vote. Could that work in “Moana's” favor? People love this Lin-Manuel Miranda guy. “How Far I'll Go” is a break-out pop hit. (Though clearly not the best song in that movie, which is obviously “Shiny.”) So it might happen.

“Trolls” thankfully avoided a nomination in the Best Animated Feature but did score a best song nod. “Can't Stop the Feeling” is a radio-friendly bit of inoffensive catchiness that, to its benefits, is even occasionally funky. I'm still not going to see that ugly-ass looking movie, as my tolerance for DreamWorks' dance party style cartoons has grown thin over the years.

It's become increasingly standard practice for issues documentaries to sneak in a song from a well-known musician, in hopes of earning an Oscar nomination and drawing more attention to its topic. This year, “Jim: The James Foley Story” fills that slot. “The Empty Chair” is even kind of pretty, as Sting manages to subdue his overwrought style. Though I feel like there where probably songs to fill out this category then this obscure pick.

Best Score may actually be the category “La La Land” most deserves to win, as its score maintains an upbeat jazziness without disappearing up its own ass. Even its most quiet moments are emotionally engaging.

The other nominees vary between experimental and fairly forgettable. Mica Levi's score for “Jackie” is interesting, a probing and even occasionally disturbing piece of music with quite a bit of strength behind it. Nicholas Britell's “Moonlight” score is also critically acclaimed, an occasionally powerful work that alternates between musical minimalism and emotional bombast.

Thomas Newman's “Passengers” score is fine but I'm not sure why it was singled out. I'd say much the same for the “Lion” soundtrack, which is weirdly understated in a lot of ways but achieves the emotion it looks for.

It's nice to consider other options but, let's face it, these are the categories “La La Land” was made for.

OFFICIAL PREDICTION:
La La Land” for both Score and Song.



OTHER FILM CATEGORIES:

Am I the only one that thinks it's weird that a seven hour long mini-series got nominated for Best Documentary? That's no slam against “O.J.: Made in America,” which I hear is brilliant, but it presents an unnerving possibility that programming obviously meant for television could encroach into film's territory. It seems unfair to judge something with quadruple the run time of its competitors, and thus more room to explore its themes and ideas, against standard length films. If “O.J.” hadn't gotten nominated, “13th” would probably win but I'm not so sure about that now. (By the way, “Life, Animated” is the feel good option this year but seems too fluffy to win.)

Disney, as always, dominates the Animated Feature category. “Moana” would be the traditional winner but “Zootopia” has slightly better critical standing, strengthening its odd. I'm also glad the Academy gave “Kubo and the Two Strings” the nod over “Finding Dory.” I liked “Dory” a lot but “Kubo” was one of last year's best films. (Meanwhile, I know next to nothing about “The Red Turtle” and “My Life as a Zucchini,” this year's oddball choices.)

Another tradition is my complete unfamiliarity with most of the Best Foreign Film nominations. Because of the stupid way the Academy decides these things, “Elle” wasn't eligible in this category. “Toni Erdmann,” a slice-of-life German film with an epic run time, is the only one of these I've heard anything about but seems to be the front runner. But I don't really have room to judge.



MISC:

La La Land” will probably continue its dominance in the technical categories, nearly all of which it's nominated in. Editing and Sound Mixing seems like surefire wins for that film, though “Moonlight' or “Silence” could get Cinematography. “Hail, Caesar!” or “Jackie” could grab the Production Design and Costume Design categories.

I'm continually baffled by what Oscar nominates for Best Make-Up. Was the make-up in “Suicide Squad” really that impressive? The Visual Effects category is a little more to my liking. I'm glad “Kubo and the Two Strings,” truly one of the best looking films from last year, managed to get nominated. However, the mind-bending visuals of “Doctor Strange” or the grounded blending of practical and CGI effects in “Rogue One” seem more likely to win.



We won't know how wrong my predictions are until the 26th of February. As is the tradition by this point, I'll be live-blogging the show right here from Film Thoughts, so all my bitchy complaints and nagging will be saved for posterity. In-between here and there, I'll try and review as many of the above films as possible.

Jimmy Kimmel is hosting the show this year. I generally find Kimmel to be smug and obnoxious but he knows how to work a crowd. After Chris Rock's disastrous run last year, maybe that's what the ceremony needs. As always, these questions and far more will be answer next month. See you soon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013)


7. The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet

After the shrugging reaction that met “Micmacs,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet said he wanted to make an another adaptation next, for his next film to be in “someone else's world.” He found that other world in Reif Larsen's novel “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet.” Jeunet was one of several filmmakers Larsen contacted about possibly adapting his then-unpublished book. “The Young and Prodigious Spivet” would be Jeunet's first entirely English language film since “Alien: Resurrection.” It would be filmed in 3-D, seemingly primed for a wide U.S. release.  This wouldn't happen, the film quickly disappearing after completion. Even while actively courting the American market, it seems like Jean-Pierre Jeunet can't make another hit.

Who is T. S. Spivet? He is a ten year old boy living on a Montana ranch with his family. His father is a rough and tumble cowboy. His mother is an eccentric scientist. His sister wants to be Miss America. T.S., meanwhile, is a genius. After designing a perpetual motion machine, he submits the blueprint to the Smithsonian Institution. They give the design an award and, assuming T.S. to be an adult, invite him to accept the trophy. The young boy runs away from home, traveling across country, to accept the prize in person. All the while, a personal tragedy hangs over the young prodigy's head.

I want to preface my following thoughts by saying I enjoyed most of “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.” However, this film was clearly designed to be Jean-Pierre Jeunet's commercial comeback. I mean, the author of the original book admitted he wrote the novel with the intentional of it being turned into a movie. Aside from being in English, its story of a precocious child going on an adventure has plenty of mass appeal. The film also heavily reminds one of “Amelie.” Both concern lonely outsiders, prone to elaborate flights of fancy, attempting to find their place in the world. Instead of being a dreamer, Spivet is a facts obsessed scientist. But the similarities stand.

In other words, “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” was an obvious attempt by the director to recreate his biggest hit. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you enjoy Jean-Pierre Jeunet's particular strain of whimsical nonsense. “Spivet” shows the director happily luxuriating in his trademarks. Despite clearly being set in the modern day – cellphones are referenced at one point - “Spivet” still feels like its set in some sort of idealized past. A literary style narration plays over much of the film. The director's trademark golden coloration plays a big role, usually in the form of the swaying wheat fields surrounding the Spivet ranch. This is such a Jeunet movie that the quirky characters, Rube Goldberg set pieces, and random Dominique Pinon appearance almost go without saying.

The most delightful of Jeunet-isms present in “T. S. Spivet” is the elaborate fantasies the young, prodigious protagonist builds. The ghost of his younger brother, Layton, appears to him throughout the film, the two having conversations. Before leaving his home, Spivet has a short conversation with the family dog, who responds in turn. (The same dog, it must be noted, was earlier seen eating a metal pail.) Jeunet displays Spivet's hyper-logical brain by having formulas and equations appear on-screen. The film's magical/realistic tone is such that when Spivet appears with a giant apparatus on his head, spitting lightning, you assume its another fantasy. T.S.'s sister even gets in on the action. In a sequence startlingly similar to Pixar's “Inside Out,” we get a peak into her mind, as different aspects of her personality discuss what to do with her little brother.

“The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” is the film debut of Kyle Catlett, who would go on to the “Poltergeist” remake and a few TV credits of note. Due to Catlett's new comer status, it's hard to judge his performance. Catlett's Spivet is overly mannered throughout the film. Catlett often delivers reams of highly technical dialogue, dictating scenes as they happen. This, however, fits the character. Catlett doesn't hit too many false notes, though he occasionally slightly fumbles an emotional scene. Time, I suppose, will see if he's a very good actor who knows how to read a character or a slightly stiff child actor.

Being a kid who thinks too much, Spivet has a complicated relationship with his parents. He sees his cowboy father as distant, believing Dad never wanted him and preferred his brother. His rationalist mother, meanwhile, can be equally difficult to approach. Callum Keith Rennie, a character actor better known for his television work, plays the dad as a traditional cowboy. He gets a few expressive moment – when tying a noose for a louse or shooting a deadly viper – but mostly plays it close to the chest. More interestingly is Helena Bohnam Carter as Spivet's mother. Carter excels when playing up her character's eccentric side, coughing up scientific facts about insects. She livens the part up with bits of sly humor, such as the way she answer Spivet's question about a school bully, or meaningful emotion, such as the scene where she attempts to reach out to the boy.

T. S.'s relationships with his siblings are equally fraught. His sister, played by the interestingly named Niamh Wilson, is a bubble-headed teenage girl. She's usually annoyed with her little brother and dreams of becoming Miss America, something her hyper-rationalist is baffled by. Yet Wilson's best moments show that she cares about her little brother. Such as how excited she is to see him on TV. Or, during another fantasy sequence, where she begs him to come home during an imagined phone call. As a younger brother, it strikes me as a realistic depiction of a sibling relationship.

I'm less certain of how the film handles Spivet's brother. It's bluntly reveal after about fifteen minutes in that Layton is dead, killed in a firearm accident. T.S. blames himself for the death, certain his parents hate him because of it. Which is partially why he imagines conversations with the brother. These scenes are “Spivet” at its most mawkish. The film really pushes things when the boy tearfully confesses the details of the accident to a crowd of people. While not quite poorly handled enough to classify as awkward, this subplot threatens to derail the film several times.

Furthering its novel-like structure, “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is evenly broken into three acts, title breaks included. The middle section depicts the boy's travel across country and leads to some of my favorite scenes. Such as a brilliantly funny moment where T.S. hides inside an R.V. display model, posing between two cardboard cut-outs. Or the especially clever way the boy sneaks aboard a moving train. The biggest action scene even has the kid leaping across a bridge, swinging over a river. It's during these scenes that we meet Dominique Pinon as a tall tale telling railroad worker and, in a less successful moment, Julian Richings as a slightly creepy truck driver. These scenes are the film at its funniest, swiftest, and most entertaining.

After accepting his award from the Smithsonian, “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” reaches its logical end point. In its final twenty minutes, the film makes an unexpected transformation into a satire about celebrity culture. Spivet's touching acceptance speech, young age, and groundbreaking invention makes him an overnight phenomenon. The museum overseer, played by an exaggerated Judy Davis, becomes his agent. She callously parades the boy around for the press, until an unlikely reunion with his parents ends the film. These scenes have little to do with the rest of the movie. Their points about celebrity and exploitation do not connect much with the film's overriding ideas. It's a very odd, totally unnecessary story shift.

One way this film is very different from Jeunet's other movies is its musical score. Dropping the accordions and pianos of his European features, “Spivet” instead features a country and western soundtrack. Provided by Denis Sanacore, the score features plenty of strumming fiddles and plucked bass guitars. The result brings the Montana setting to mind immediately while also providing a sense of adventure to Spivet's quest across country. For the more introspective moments, a softer melody is employed, utilizing a methodical guitar. While not as instantly memorable as some of Jeunet's other scores, the music perfectly fits the movie.

If “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” represents Jean-Pierre Jeunet repeating himself, it could be a lot worst. The film is still very entertaining, quite funny throughout, and characterized by an overwhelming charm. While Jeunet is clearly restraining his wildest instincts, there's still plenty of himself present in the final product. As always, he brings some brilliant cinematography along with him. The script this several road bumps, preventing the ride from being totally smooth. I would put “Spivet” on about the same level as “Micmacs,” a slight work that nevertheless fits in with the director's style, is fun to watch, and deserved to reach a wider audience. [Grade: B]



Since "Spivet's" underwhelming release, Jean-Pierre Jeunet hasn't worked much. It's evident that his string of commercial nonstarters has damaged his career. His most recent credit is a TV pilot for a "Casanova" series. He's done a few commercial and was recently in the news for expressing disgust at the "Amelie" musical. Supposedly he's hard at work on a new script which will ditch his retro setting for something edgier. I would've prefer a return to his weirder, early sci-fi days but I think a change of scenery is going to be good for Jeunet. Whatever he does next, and whatever part he sticks Dominique Pinon in next, I'll probably check it out.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2009)


6. Micmacs
Micmacs à tire-larigot

“Micmacs” is a landmark film for Jean-Pierre Jeunet but not necessarily in a positive way. His previous two movies received a lot of attention, getting nominated for awards and earning positive reviews all over the world. “Amelie,” and “A Very Long Engagement” to a lesser degree, were break-out French films, connecting with English speaking audiences. “Micmacs” - shortened from the French title of “Micmacs a tire-larigot” - was none of those things. The reviews were positive but not overwhelmingly so. The film came and went from theaters without much attention. “Micmacs” is a movie that just kind of disappeared. Let's try and figured out why.

As a child, Bazil's father was killed while attempting to deactivate a landmine. As an adult, he lives a peaceful existence as a video store clerk. This is interrupted when a robbery goes wrong outside, leaving a bullet embedded in Bazil's head. Upon awakening, he looses his job and ends up on the streets. Soon, he meets up with a group of eccentrics, a family of quirky individuals living in a junk yard. After discovering the arms dealing company that made the bullet in his head and the mine that killed his father, Bazil devises a scheme of revenge against the weapons manufacturers.

“Micmacs” has an unlikely one-sentence summary. This is a whimsical comedy about the arms trade. That one line might make you expect a biting satire about the corporations and millionaires who profit off the death and destruction caused by guns and bombs. Considering the director doesn't usually approach political subjects, it might not be surprising to read that “Micmacs” isn't exactly a cutting edge satire. Instead, it essentially exports the wacky, humorous stylings the director displayed in “Delicatessen” and “Amelie,” using it to comment on a very serious real world issue.

After going a little light on his trademark style with “A Very Long Engagement,” the classical Jeunet hallmarks return with “Micmacs.” The film has the madcap comic energy of his earliest motion pictures. The family Bazil integrates himself with carries a circus like tone, with a contortionists and a human cannonball being among their numbers. A fascination with chain reaction-style comic set pieces return in a big way. While “Micmacs” is clearly set in present day France, the film feels more abreast with “The City of Lost Children” than the director's more recent features. The set design is more exaggerated, the urban setting more stylized. There's even a cameo appearances from two of “Delicatessen's” main characters.

“Micmacs” also presents an opportunity for Jeunet to indulge his love of surreal set pieces. Since Bazil has a bullet lodged in his brain, he's prone to elaborate hallucinations. After discovering the office building of the weapons manufacturer, Bazil imagines a whole orchestra playing behind him. After awakening in a car, he has a dream about a soccer field exploding with landmines. When certain of his death, Bazil thinks about the unlikely demises of various historical figures, which is presented as a demented cartoon. Even when not hallucinating, Bazil is a quirky character. Such as the clownish acts he performs on the street as a beggar. Dany Boon's game performance helps sell the character's comically fragmented state of mind.

A quirky love story has also, over the years, emerged as a trademark of Jeunet. “Micmacs” naturally features one too. Of all the friends Bazil make after moving into the junk yard, one in particular catches his attention. The character is only known as the Elastic Girl. A contortionist, she's introduced by unfolding herself out of a refrigerator. Throughout the film, she curls up inside a number of unlikely places: Shipping boxes, cabinets, closets, under blankets. She bickers with Bazil in a way that suggests mutual interest. Before the end, she outright declares her feelings for him, Bazil going along with it. It's not as well realized or touching as the love stories in “Delicatessen,” “Amelie,” or “A Very Long Engagement” but it's still pretty cute. Julie Ferrier is clearly the stand-out performer of the film, bringing a striking screen presence to the part.

The group of friends Bazil makes in the junk yard are clearly designed to be a family. Mama Chow, played by a warmth exuding Yolande Moreau, is clearly the matriarch of the group. She cooks the meals for everyone, seeing the guests as her children. Slammer, played by a charming jean-Pierre Marielle, emerges as the father figure. A former convict, hence the nickname, Slammer survived execution by guillotine and enjoys showing off the scar. Despite his sordid past, he's a welcoming, friendly figure. There's even a duo of little kids wandering around the lair, who admire the other members of the family that way you would an aunt or uncle.

“Micmacs” comes dangerously close to defining its cast members as nothing but quirks. Luckily, a talented cast makes them more detailed. Dominique Pinon, in his required appearance, plays Buster. A former human cannonball, Buster is adamant about breaking new records concerning distance and speed. Pinon brings the same likable clownish energy to the part that we've come to expect from him. Michel Crémadès plays Tiny Pete, a highly Jeunet-esque character who makes clockwork inventions out of trash. Such as walking tables or robotic strongmen. Omar Sy is very funny as Remington, a writer who constantly speaks in highly dramatic narration. My favorite of “Micmacs'” quirky family is Marie–Julie Baup as the Calculator, an eccentric girl who can intuitively measure anything. Baup has a twitchy energy that I like.

While Jeunet has frequently peppered his films with homages to silent cinema, “Micmacs” is one of the first times he's explicitly homaged another movie. During Bazil's last night in the video store, he watches a French dubbed tape of “The Big Sleep.” The opening credits that follow are done in the style of a 1940s movie. While “Micmacs'” plot is not quite as convoluted as a Raymond Chandler adaptation, it does feature instigators brewing trouble for bad men in high places. Later in the film, several scenes are set in the kind of wide, desert vistas that bring spaghetti westerns to mind. From this angle, “Micmacs” reminds me of “A Fistful of Dollars,” about an outsider playing two enemies against each other. Either way, it's clear that Jeunet had other films on his mind while making this one.

The funniest scenes in “Micmacs” are those devoted to Jeunet's trademark chain reactions. The best of which comes first. A weapons deal between the villains and a collection of shady crime lords is interrupted at an airport. Bazil's friends pose as pushy salesmen and distracting tourist. This allows Buster to entice a dog with a sausage. After the canine is let loose by Elastic Girl, a delightfully mad cap chase breaks out. Later, the night watchman at the villain's apartment complex is distracted by an adult actress performing vocally in a window across the street. While he watches, the gang slips a sleep inducing sugar cube into his coffee. Later, Buster gets to show off his abilities as a human cannon ball. But a malfunction happens, sending him wildly off course. That scene represents “Micmacs” at its silliest but even gags that big don't feel out of place.

And what of the bad guys at the center of “Micmacs,” the men who happily make themselves rich supplying weapons to war zones? Nicolas Marie plays Francois Marconi, a CEO who likes to compare himself to poets. He lives in a penthouse suit and constantly belittles everyone around him, even his young son. Marie has fun playing the part as an utterly smug bastard, the kind of character you anticipating getting his just desserts. Across the street is the rival CEO, Andre Dussollier's Nicholas De Fenouillet. Where Marconi is smug, DeFenouillet is odd. He collects the body parts of famous people, reveling in his wealth. Both actors excel in their parts, creating adversaries you can root against.

As I said, “Micmacs” is mostly too silly to be accepted as a statement about arms dealing. Except for that climatic scene. The arms dealers are kidnapped and dropped into a desert zone. Stack atop each other, they are marched through a valley littered with landmines. Near-by, women in burkas watch, while holding pictures of children missing limbs. Under pressure, the arms dealers confess to all the terrorists and criminals they've sold their guns and bombs to. In one moment, the film brings the effects the sale of implements of death have on innocent people, an effective sequence. The tone then ricochets back around to silly and comedic, in a reveal too satisfying to discuss here.

Did “Micmacs” deserve to slip so totally under the radar? The film can't compare to Jeunet's best work. It doesn't have the raw creativity of his early, sci-fi flicks. Nor does it have the genuine emotion of “Amelie.” However, it is a lot of fun. The film sees the director returning to the anarchic spirit of his earliest films. The script makes one or two interesting statements about the world we live in. Mostly, “Micmacs” cooks up a collection of lovable, eccentric goofballs. The warmth among Bazil's new family and the camaraderie the filmmaker feels with them might be the main reason you return to “Micmacs,” a minor but gratifying motion picture. [Grade: B]

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2004)


5. A Very Long Engagement
Un long dimanche de fiançailles

After the international success of “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet set out to make his most ambitious film yet. Re-teaming with Audrey Tautou, the director would mount “A Very Long Engagement,” one of the most expensive French films made at the time. Aside from the sheer scope of the project, the film presented many other challenges to the director. It was his first adaptation, based off a novel by Sebastien Japrisot. It was his first historical film, his first war movie. Neither the surreal sci-fi of his early films nor the everyday whimsy of “Amelie” would play much of a role in this. The risk would pay off, mostly, as the film would exceed its budget at the box office, win positive reviews, and earn a few Academy Award nominations.

Mathilde and Manech are young lovers, engaged to be married. Their love affair is interrupted when World War I breaks out, dragging Manech away to the blood soaked trenches. Manech winds up among five soldiers sentenced to death for self-mutilation. During the march to be executed, all five men disappear. Mathidle is crestfallen by the news but refuses to give up hope, believing Manech to still be alive. She follows a convoluted series of event, hoping to track down the man she loves, even though everyone else is convinced that he's dead.

Befitting its literary roots, “A Very Long Engagement” shares the novel-like structure that “Amelie” had. Both films feature sporadic narration, describing the events from on high and filling in background details. Jeunet's tendency towards meandering stories, featuring lots of narrative side paths, are also carried over to this film. This reveals “A Very Long Engagement's” true motivation. The film is structured like a mystery, as the lead character follows leads, trying to parse out the truth for herself. Unlike a standard mystery – where the goal is to find a murderer or something stolen – what's at stake here is hope. Mathilde's ever-lasting hope that her lover is still alive is challenged by everything around her, threatened to be snuffed out, but always finds a way to persist.

Though the majority of Jeunet's films have been set in some sort of future, there's always been a retro quality to his movies. “A Very Long Engagement,” as a period piece, takes this tendency to its natural conclusion. Set in the 1920s, the film features several sequences reminiscent of silent films, reveling in Jeunet's frequently displayed love of that format. Even when shooting scenes in color and with sound, Jeunet features many of the visual tropes of silent films. Such as irises or floating images. Moreover, the director shoots most of the movie through a golden-hued lens. This creates a warm, nostalgic glow to the picture, placing it even further in the past.

Despite its differences in story and tone, it's clear that “A Very Long Engagement” stands in the shadow of “Amelie's” success. You wonder if the director reunited with Audrey Tautou, in hopes of recreating that film's success. Tautou's Mathilde shares some similarities with Amelie. Both are eccentric young women. Mathilde plays little games in her head, deciding Manech is still alive if certain events within a certain time frame. Another thing the character has in common with Tautou's most famous role is that both had lonely childhoods. Mathilde's parents died when she was long and her childhood polio put her in a brace, making her lonely and withdrawn. Yet Mathilde's strength manifests in different ways then Amelie's. She is driven to achieve her goal, no matter the odds against her.

“A Very Long Engagement,” among its many other elements, is also a beautifully realized love story. Mathilde and Manech's romance begins when they are little children, after the boy expresses concern for her leg. She's quiet at first but his continued kindness wins her over. Soon, they are running and playing through Manech's lighthouse. That sense of mutual understanding and playfulness powers their relationship. (The latter of which is beautifully displayed when the two make love for the first time, with Mathilde removing another layer of clothing every time the lights flick on and off.) All of this is shown through a flashback in the center of the movie, making the viewer understand why Mathilde is so devoted to this man.

The war sequences contrast directly with the sunny, beautifully photographed present day scenes. The WWI scenes are cold, characterized by a black and blue color palette. It's constantly raining on the battle field. The men are always soaked and exhausted. When the violence comes, it is totally unsentimental. For example: A comrade of Manech's is blasted to apart by a bomb, the boy splattered with viscera. Another scene has rows upon rows of soldiers gun down, the bodies piling atop each other. Corpses sit among the living, without much consideration. There's nothing stylish or entertaining about the violence. It's so casual, it's almost bloodless. This is life on the front, where death comes suddenly and brutishly, where dead bodies are just an every day part of the scenery.

Jeunet rarely gets political but an anti-war message quickly emerges from “A Very Long Engagement.” The film begins with a  lengthy prologue, explaining why the five men where sentenced to death. Each, eager to escape the horrors of the war, mutilate themselves in hopes of getting away from the trenches. When their deception is found out, they are sent to die. The script happily draws attention to the irony here. That the men are trained to kill but punished for shallowly harming themselves. In one case, a cigarette burn to the hand is sufficient enough to count as “self mutilation.” As Mathilde digs into the five men's lives, the film also draws attention to another sad reality of war. That normal men – carpenters, husbands, boys – are swept out of their everyday lives, dropped onto a battle field, and expected to kill.

The extended run time, of two hours and thirteen minutes, leaves room for plenty of seemingly unrelated story points. Some of these elements are more interesting then others. One lengthy scene features a surprise appearance from Jodie Foster, who speaks fluent French. It details the story of man so in love with a woman that he adopts her five children. As the war looms, he hopes to avoid being drafted by fathering a sixth child. But the man is sterile, so he insists his wife sleep with his best friend. She's resistant, loyal to him. When the affair begins, she falls in love with the best friend. It's another story of loyalty and vows being tested, quite different from the story of Mathile and Manech's ever lasting love.

Yet not all of the additional story lines are equally compelling. A wandering subplot features Marion Cotillard as a former prostitute, who has formulated a series of elaborate schemes to avenge her dead lover. In typically playful Jeunet touches, these include falling shards of glass and a gun connected by a chain to a pair of glasses. Despite a passionate performance by Cotillard, this story line sometimes feel like an unnecessary addition. (Especially since it takes some time for the film to explain what it means.) Another lengthy flashback features another surviving comrades of Manech's. This also features a creative moment, when a bomb and a zeppelin collide unexpectedly, but definitely goes on too long.

An underrated aspect of “A Very Long Engagement” is its supporting cast. Mathilde's guardians, an uncle and his wife, are played by Jeunet's lucky charm Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth. Both are hugely nurturing towards their adopted daughter, projecting a genuine warmth. Pinon is very good at subtly suggesting that perhaps it's pass time for Mathilde to give up her quest, while remaining supportive of the girl. Neuwirth, meanwhile, is all homey warmth, making rich meals and laughing at dog farts. Near the end, there's a touching scene where we get a deeper peek at her character.

“A Very Long Engagement” is another proud reunion for Jeunet. Angelo Badalamenti scores the film, returning from “The City of Lost Children.” It is a lush, moving score. Badalamenti begins with a mournful oboe, drawing attention to the longing Mathile feels for her lost love before building towards a cascading wall of overwhelming strings, enriching the emotional struggle the characters are feeling inside. It's also a sonically big piece of music, full of huge emotion and powerful climaxes, matching the film's epic story.

By going as big as possible, Jeunet looses some of the emotional connectivity of “Amelie” and far too much of the quirky humor that characterized his previous film. It does feel a bit odd watching a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie that doesn't have a single moment of surrealism or magic realism. “A Very Long Engagement” is, ultimately, a little too sprawling for its own good. Yet the film is still full of beautiful images, wonderful performances, and powerful moments. If this is what it looks like when a cult director goes mainstream, I guess the results are still pretty satisfying. [Grade: B]

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)


4. Amelie
Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

“Alien: Resurrection” didn't destroy Jean-Pierre Jeunet's career. However, it's clear that the big Hollywood production left a bad taste in his mouth. Jeunet would return to France and make his most critically acclaimed and popular film yet. The original French title translates as “The Fabulous Life of Amelie Poulain” but stateside we just call it “Amelie.” The film would be nominated for five Academy Awards and become the favorite movie of that one girl everyone knew in college. It briefly made Audrey Tautou an international superstar and easily one of the most beloved French actresses. While of a different stripe then Jenuet's previous films, many would be happy to claim it as his masterpiece. 

As a lonely child, Amelie Poulain would retreat into an imaginative fantasy world. As she grew into a shy, withdrawn adult, Amelie maintained for penchant for whimsy. A chance encounter has Amelie making a sudden decision. She decides to improve the lives of those around her. Which includes befriending the ill man across the street, urging her father to leave the house more, and hooking up two loners at the coffee shop she works at. Amelie is so focused on adding some magic to the lives of those around her that she forgets to improve her own life. Soon, love comes calling and Amelie must grow if she wants to attain happiness.

“Amelie” begins with a narrator describing a series of seemingly unrelated events, happening simultaneously across Paris on the same day. In a direct quote from Jeunet's earlier short film, “Things I Like, Things I Don't Like,” the narrator relates the personal likes and dislikes of the characters. This lends two different, complimenting aspects to “Amelie.” The omniscient narrator grants a novelistic feeling to the film, adding insight to the fantasy world “Amelie” inhabits. By the same accord, it zeroes in on what a small story this is. Often, and to its benefit, “Amelie” feels like a series of events in the lives of ordinary people.

“Amelie' has been accused by some as being too whimsical, too quirky for its own good. This is not an unfair criticism. Without one major attribute, the film's capriciousness might have been overbearing. That attribute is Audrey Tautou. With beaming saucer eyes, a black bob of perky hair, rosy cheeks, and an entirely enchanting smile, Tautou immediately charms the audience. Tautou imbues every gesture and movement with an effervescent energy, showing pure glee and delight in countless scenes. The script refers to the character as “just pretty,” which is surely ironic as Tautou is utterly gorgeous. Tautou is so delightful, so instantly lovable, that she would have to take extra caution not be typecast in similarly daydreaming, flighty parts.

Premise wise, there doesn't seem to be much that connects “Amelie” with Jeunet's earlier, surreal science-fiction films. The always sunny, perfectly clean version of Paris seen in this film is a million miles away from “Alien: Resurrection,” that's for sure. Yet one element in particular emerges out of “Amelie” that connects it with Jeunet's earlier films. Amelie has a lonely childhood, raised by a nervous mother and a father that never hugged her. This resulted in colorful flights of fancy: Performing check-ups on a fuzzy green creature, clouds forming into teddies or bunnies. Out of the sweetness of childhood emerges an honest sadness about being alone.

As quirky as “Amelie” appears, it's also a film bordered by death, even in its cutest moments. One of the earliest scenes concerns a man marking a recently deceased friend's name out of his phone book. In a blackly comic sequence, Amelie's mother is killed by another person attempting to take their own lives. The death of Princess Diana floats throughout the entire movie, characters reacting to the beloved celebrity's sudden passing in different ways. Amelie's first act of kindness is reuniting a man with a box of beloved, childhood mementos. This prompts him to reconnect with his children, before he “ends up in his own box.” “Amelie” is a film that ravels in the beauty of life. This is all the more effective since it admires how short life truly is.

Amelie's random acts of kindness shift between the strictly adorable to more mischievous. She's at her most wicked when laying tiny pranks for a cruel grocer, all in a effort to get him to treat a belittled co-worker better. The meticulous quality of these scenes are especially amusing, as we see the man react to every trap she lays for him. She delivers video tapes of unusual events to the brittle-boned painter. My favorite of Amelie's scheme is what she plans for her own father. She kidnaps dad's lawn gnome – part of a shrine devoted to her late mother – and mails it around the world. Dad then receives photos of the gnome posing in front of various landmarks. The film saves as much room for Dad's reaction as the act itself, mining good-natured humor from the prank.

As a Jeunet film, “Amelie' is obviously a visual feast. The production design is flawless, while the photography is warm, inviting, and just slightly dream-like. Some of my favorite moments in “Amelie” is when Jeunet peppers this story with imaginative flights of fancy. After walking a blind man down a street, and describing everything she's sees, a cone of light emerges around the man. After setting up the first pranks against the grocer, Amelie imagines herself as Zorro, defending the defenseless. When flushed with feeling, we see her heart beat in her chest. When crestfallen, we see her dissolve into a puddle of water. Jeunet's direction becomes frenzied when capturing Amelie's nervous perception of the world. When indulging her flights of fancies – how many couples are having orgasms right now? - his editing is equally fast paced.

The film reaches its most dizzying heights when focused on the love story. Amelie meets Nino when she spots him fishing torn up pictures out of photo booths. Through fate, she comes upon his lost book collecting these photos. Before giving the book back, she sends Nino on a wild scavenger hunt. Again, in any other film, this probably would've been too precious. Jeunet tempers the cuteness with Nino's job in a sleazy sex shop. More importantly, he acknowledges that the games Amelie plays are another way to guard her secret, shy heart. When the two come together, it's truly earned, a joyous meeting of two like-minded dreamers.

“Amelie” also pulls off another impressive act. Most romantic/comedies have that tedious injection of drama during the end of the second act. Usually, a character screws up and has to win their lover back with some big, grand gesture. In this film, we are presented with the one example of that troupe that actually makes sense. Instead of a contrived event keeping Amelie and Nino apart, the only thing separating the two lovers' are their own anxieties, doubts, fears, and neurosis. She nearly meets the man before hesitating, which cost her. It's only with the urging of a mentor that Amelie is finally willing to venture outside her own world and greet the love she deserves.

“Amelie” isn't an ensemble to the degree that “Delicatessen” was but still features a colorful supporting cast. Jeunet regular Rufus plays Amelie's father, an eccentric and sorrowful man trapped as much in his own world as his daughter is. Dominique Pinon – naturally, the director sneaked him in somewhere – appears as Joseph. A regular at Amelie's coffee shop, Joseph is bitterly spying on an ex-girlfriend. Amelie engineers a romance between Joseph and Georgette, a hypochondriac co-worker played with perfect humor by Isabelle Nanty. When the two finally get together, the result is thunderous, to say the least. I also like Jamel Debbouze as Lucien, the bullied stock boy with an interest in stage magic, and Serge Merlin as the painter next door, a wise man who mostly speaks in riddles.

Nearly as famous as the film's visual style is its soundtrack. Jeunet would score the film with pre-existing music from French pianist Yann Tiersen. “Amelie's” success and Tiersen's music go hand in hand. The accordion driven main theme establishes the Parisian setting, the film's impish sense of humor, and a jaunty sense of energy. Yet this can't compare to a piece of music used throughout the film called “L'apres-midi.” A devastatingly powerful piano piece, the music hints at the melancholy and power hiding within “Amelie,” summoning up an incredible wave of emotion during several key scenes.

A decade and a half after its original release, “Amelie” remains Jean-Pierre Jeunet's most critically acclaimed film. There was even a stage musical, so you know the movie must be popular. It's an enchanting experience, that runs over two hours but floats by like the most pleasant of dreams. “Amelie” is a movie that makes me happy, that fills me with the most genuine and heart-lifting joy imaginable. It is a touching, funny, beautiful experience that never fails to raise my spirits. [Grade: A]