Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: "Micmacs"

Quirkiness is one of those cinematic affectations that must be achieved very carefully in order not to alienate or annoy audiences. The idea of the "quirky comedy" is nothing new, but for a large part of the last decade it has been a hugely prevalent trend, mistaking odd whimsy for actual humor. It some cases it has worked, and nowhere did it work better than in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's magical 2001 French comedy, Amélie.

With Amélie, Jeunet demonstrated a flair for combining offbeat humor and effortless charm with actual substantive romance. In his latest film, Micmacs, Jeunet tries to recapture that combination of substance and whimsy by tackling an even more socially relevant topic - the arms trade and the military industrial complex.

It's an odd mix, and is ultimately made no less odd by its awkward execution. It's clear that the style just does not match the subject matter, and Micmacs ends up drowned by its own stilted sense of humor.

Left to Right: Dany Boon as Bazil, Julie Ferrier as Elastic Girl © 2008 - Bruno CALVO/ EPITHETE FILMS - TAPIOCA FILMS, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Micmacs is a film built on coincidences that are supposed to be magical and charming, but instead come off as contrived. Our protagonist is Bazil, whose father is killed by a land mine when he is a young boy. Years later, Bazil is shot in the head in a freak accident, and finds himself homeless after he is released from the hospital. He is then taken in by a band of misfits who live in a junkyard, and after recognizing the manufacturing labels on the weapons that both killed his father and wounded him, Bazil and his newfound friends set out to wreak havoc upon their business, and bring down these two major weapons manufacturers by pitting them against each other.

Each inhabitant of the junkyard pulls his or her weight with their unique and unusual talents, and each brings their particular expertise to the table to bring these two companies down. The problem is that there are so many characters, none of them is ever anything more than the sum of their quirks. Each one has something peculiar about them, and that's all the film decides you ever need to know about them. They are there to be oddly endearing, but Micmacs has a tendency to accentuate the odd and forego the endearing part completely. It's not from lack of trying, however. Jeunet consistently bludgeons the audience with attempts at being charming. You can almost hear him standing behind the camera yelling "This is cute and endearing! Love me and be charmed!"

Left to Right: Jean-Pierre Marielle as Placard, Dany Boon as Bazil
© 2008 - Bruno CALVO/ EPITHETE FILMS - TAPIOCA FILMS, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It doesn't work. It all feels strained and forced, hamfisted and artless when it should be organic and effortless. It's subject is completely incongruous to its subject matter. And although the weapons industry is a prime for satire and ridicule, Micmacs feels doggedly wrongheaded. Its heart is in the right place, but its worldview is frustratingly simplistic. It's almost as if Jeunet can't decide whether he is making an Amélie style fantasy or a serious critique of the arms trade, but Micmacs doesn't really work as either. It's an exercise in style, its substance swallowed up by an infatuation with its own percieved charm.

It's also fatally unfocused, jumping from one outlandish situation to the next (facilitated by some new and crazy new skill from one of Bazil's friends) that distract from the story and seem more like pointless comedic setpieces than facilitators of a satiric plotline. It's more enamoured with creating a specific look and feel than being cohesive, and as a result it becomes irreparably lost. In trying to recapture the specific charm of Amélie, Micmacs stumbles, unable to overcome its own self conscious quirkiness. Lightning never strikes twice, and in the case of Micmacs, it misses the mark completely.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MICMACS; Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; Stars Dany Boon, André Dussollier, Nicholas Marié, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier; Rated R for some sexuality and brief violence; In French w/English subtitles. Opens tomorrow, 5/27, in select theaters.

On "Shrek Forever After"

From The Dispatch:
The first two were excellent, the third was a mistake, but an inevitable one, a fourth just seems redundant, especially since all the characters have to be re-introduced to each other all over again. It's nice to see the characters in a completely different situation, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that Shrek has overstayed his welcome.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: "OSS 117: Lost in Rio"

After the international hit OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was released in 2006 (it didn't make it to the States until 2007), it was almost inevitable that a sequel would soon follow. After all, the genre it so deftly lampoons is known for its penchant for prolific sequels, so it only seems logical that the spoofs should follow suit.

However, as is often the case with most sequels, OSS 117: Lost in Rio just doesn't live up to the promise of the original. All the elements are in place, but the joke wears a bit thin this time. Lost in Rio falls into an all too common sequel trap - it brings nothing new to the table.

For this go-round, the bumbling, cluelessly insensitive Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Jean Dujardin), aka OSS 117, has been assigned to track down former Nazi officers who have fled to Brazil after WWII and bring them to justice. Along the way he teams up with a beautiful Mossad agent who has been tasked with capturing Nazis and returning them to Israel to face justice from Jewish authorities.

Of course, our intrepid hero is more interested in bedding the Mossad agent, Dolores Kuleshov (Louise Monot), than he is in finding Nazis, and his penchant for letting his libido drive his decision making gets him in trouble more than once. Of course, while it is often dumb luck or the quick thinking of his counterparts that get him out of it, OSS 117 has a way of getting the job done even while being a hapless boor. The problem with the film is that once it sets up its premise, it really has nowhere to go. It is a one joke movie carried over from the last film, with nothing new or particularly creative to say. OSS 117 is a bumbling, horny idiot, surrounded by much more intelligent people who pull him along, leaving him to think he is the best. It is a pretty typical spy spoof set-up, but where the original felt fresh and funny, Lost in Rio feels tired and strained.

The film is mostly a series of set pieces with no real cohesion or narrative drive. It places its hero in increasingly ludicrous situations that, instead of flowing organically from the narrative, seem born out of group brainstorming sessions about crazy things he could get himself into.

The longer the film goes on, the more one gets the sneaking suspicion that the script is made up of rejected jokes and concepts from the original. It's less funny and more silly, repeating its dumb spy schtick ad nauseum. The antics are still good for a few laughs, but as a whole the film is turgid and stale when it should be loose and funny. The tongue-in-cheek cleverness is gone, having been replaced by a feeling of been-there-done-that ennui.

It's less cohesive and less funny than its predecessor, completely lacking the creative spark that made Cairo, Nest of Spies such a riotous joy. For all its strained attempts to recapture the magic, Lost in Rio is just more of the same. Only this time, the novelty is nowhere to be found.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

OSS 117: LOST IN RIO; Directed by Michel Hazanavicius; Stars Jean Dujardin, Louise Monot, Alex Lutz, Rudiger Vogler; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles.

"Uncle Boonmee" Wins Palme D'Or

By now it's pretty much old news that Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but I think it bears repeating.

Boonmee was probably my most anticipated film of the festival, largely because I am a big fan of Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (my #1 film of 2005) and Syndromes and a Century, so I was thrilled to hear that in won. Weerasethakul is quite possibly one of the greatest directors working today but has been consistently overlooked, even by mainstream critics. A Cannes win will make more people sit up and take notice.

Here is the complete list of winners, courtesy of Variety:

Palme d'Or

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Spain-Thailand-Germany-U.K.-France)

Grand Prix

"Of Gods and Men" (Xavier Beauvois, France)

Director

Mathieu Amalric ("On Tour," France)

Jury prize

"A Screaming Man" (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, France-Belgium-Chad)

Actor

Javier Bardem ("Biutiful," Mexico-Spain) and Elio Germano ("Our Life," Italy)

Actress

Juliette Binoche ("Certified Copy," France-Italy-Iran)

Screenplay

Lee Chang-dong ("Poetry," South Korea)

UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY AWARDS

Main prize

"Hahaha" (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Jury prize

"October" (Daniel Vega, Diego Vega)

Special prize

Adela Sanchez, Eva Bianco, Victoria Raposo, "The Lips" (Ivan Fund, Santiago Losa, Argentina)

OTHER MAIN JURY AWARDS

Camera d'Or

"Leap Year" (Michael Rowe, Mexico)

Critics' Week Grand Prix

"Armadillo" (Janus Metz, Denmark)

SHORT FILMS JURY PRIZES

Palme d'Or

"Barking Island" (Serge Avedikian)

Jury prize

"Bathing Micky" (Frida Kempff)

UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY AWARDS

Main Prize

"Hahaha" (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Jury Prize

"October" (Daniel Vega, Diego Vega)

Special Prize

Adela Sanzhez, Eva Bianco, Victoria Raposo, "The Lips" (Ivan Fund, Santiago Losa, Argentina)

FIPRESCI AWARDS

Competition

"On Tour" (Mathieu Amalric, France)

Un Certain Regard

"Adrienn Pal" (Agnes Kocsis, Hungary)

Directors' Fortnight

"You Are All Captains" (Olivier Laxe, Spain)

CINEFONDATION

First Prize

"The Painting Sellers" (Juho Kuosmanen)

Second Prize

"Anywhere Out of the World" (Vincent Cardona)

Third Prize

"The Fifth Column" (Vatche Boulghourjian) and "I Already Am Everything I Want to Have" (Dane Komljen)

ECUMENICAL PRIZE

"Of Gods and Men" (Xavier Beauvois, France)

PRIX VULCAIN TECHNICAL AWARD

Leslie Shatz ("Biutiful," Mexico-Spain)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On "Iron Man 2"

From The Dispatch:

Downey is perfect as Stark and is joined here by a fantastic supporting cast, although Terrence Howard is missed as Stark's friend, Rhodey (aka War Machine), despite a passable turn by Cheadle. Everything here adds up to a popcorn action film that makes good on its promise to thrill and excite without simply retreading what has already been done. "Iron Man 2" is tremendous summer fun, a big-time superhero spectacle that delivers to both fans and newcomers alike, kicking off the summer movie season in sensational fashion.

Monday, May 10, 2010

On "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

From The Dispatch:
Craven's original film was an effective and original low budget chiller. But the remake is dramatically inert and devoid of fresh ideas. I'd rather see a hundred horror films like Tom Six's shocker "The Human Centipede" (which was released on the same day as "A Nightmare on Elm Street," albeit in limited release) with an original concept, no matter how successful it is in its execution, than one more lifeless remake or reboot like this without a single creative bone in its body.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Review: "Harry Brown"

There is a certain primal thrill to seeing the bad guys get their comeuppances. Movies have always given audiences a chance to live out those feelings without actually acting on them, getting the satisfaction of seeing the villains go down at the hands of the hero.

Revenge thrillers take that feeling and capitalize on it, building entire narratives around the innate human need to see justice played out on a grand scale. You can read it as a right-wing fantasy or an endorsement of vigilantism, but that often seems like an oversimplification. The fact is, these films tap into a deep seeded human desire that is beyond politics. Is it right to exploit that as entertainment? Or do films like this act as a outlet for those emotions, letting people live out those fantasies in a darkened theater so as not to act on them in real life? There is a legitimate debate to be had on that subject, but that's not what this is about. The question at hand is whether or not Daniel Barber's new vigilante drama, Harry Brown, is a good film. The answer is - not quite.

It gets points for presenting a fresh new twist on the genre. Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-Marine who is mourning the death of his beloved wife. It's the beginning of a lonely existence, filled with the dreary routines of waking up alone every day, and visiting the corner pub to play chess with his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley). But things are changing in Harry's world, and not just because his wife of many years has just passed away. His neighborhood is becoming a hotbed of gang activity and drug related violence, and Leonard is afraid for his life after becoming a target of ridicule and threatening pranks by local hoodlums. But when Leonard can't take it anymore and confronts his tormentors, he ends up as another sad statistic on an ever growing list of causalities.

Now not only has Harry lost his wife, he has lost his best friend as well. Alone in the world with nothing to lose, and faced with an increasingly ineffectual justice system, Harry decides to take matters into his own hands, calling upon his old military training to take on the gangs single handedly and clean up the streets to avenge his fallen friend.

Credit must be given to Harry Brown for not turning Harry into some kind of unstoppable force. While he may be a former Marine, he is still old, and hasn't been active in that way in many many years. Unlike, say, Liam Neeson in Taken, who is still very much able to draw upon all of his training. Basically, Harry Brown is just an ordinary guy who has is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore, and he has just enough know-how to give him an edge over these young punks. The problem is that beyond that, the film doesn't really bring much new to the table. It has a lurid, ripped from the British tabloids plot that seems over the top in its depictions of the seedy underworld Harry must descend into in order to find Leonard's murderer.

There is an undeniable pleasure in watching Michael Caine teach these damn kids a lesson, but by the time the police are called in to clean up the mess, the films takes on an unnervingly fascist tone that makes one wonder just what the filmmakers had in mind. The build up is the film's strongest aspect, but by the time we reach Harry's revenge, it becomes a film nearly indistinguishable from others of its ilk. Caine is excellent as always, while Emily Mortimer seems stuck in a thankless and underwritten role of a detective trying to solve Leonard's murder and ends up on Harry's trail instead. It is a film that is not without its own unique pleasures, but there's also something tired and strangely unfocused about it, as if its in the throes of a political identity crisis, stuck between trying to make a statement on current events in Britain and trying to be a straight entertainment. Ultimately, it never really succeeds at either one.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

HARRY BROWN; Directed by Daniel Barber; Stars Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Iain Glenn; Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content. Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Review: "The Good Heart"

It's always disappointing to see a film throw away a tremendous amount of material with one terribly misjudged plot point, and few films in recent memory have thrown all built up good will out the window in such spectacular fashion as Dagur Kári's The Good Heart.

The film plays all its cards in the first ten minutes, and completely lays out its entire plot trajectory in one of the most awkwardly blatant pieces of foreshadowing I've seen in a long time.

But then it gets good.

The success of The Good Heart is due almost exclusively to the performances of Brian Cox and Paul Dano, and the beautifully moody cinematography by Rasmus Videbæk. The chemistry between Cox and Dano keep the film rolling along at a good clip, creating a solid and endearing relationship between two very unlikely companions.

Brian Cox in THE GOOD HEART, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Cox stars as Jacques, a curmudgeonly bartender with a bad heart, who after yet another massive heart attack finds himself in a hospital room with Lucas (Dano), a young homeless man and victim of a failed suicide attempt. The two form an unusual friendship during their convalescence, and upon their release, Jacques decides to take Lucas in and train him to one day take over his run down old bar with its unique set of regulars. Jacques, as bitter and angry as he is lonely, doesn't have a true friend in the world. He is alienating, maddening, and completely off putting. Even those who like him often find themselves on the wrong end of his boundless anger and annoyance at the world. But Lucas gives him something he's never had before whether he realizes it or not.

Jacques has a soft spot. It's buried beneath a deep seeded bitterness, but its there. And his relationship with Lucas makes up the core of the film. Cox's snarling, foul-mouthed performance is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, with his complete and utter dislike of everyone around him and a complete disregard for who he offends. But, like Eastwood, there is something oddly endearing about him. Kári finds the good in him without treacly sentimentality. Jacques is a mean old cuss, even at his most tender, but Kári wisely avoids any simplistic attempts at redemption.

Paul Dano in THE GOOD HEART, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

That is until the ending, a last minute sucker punch that destroys everything the film had worked so hard to build. Kári abandons the film's previously measured tone in favor of an appallingly manipulative plot twist that may as well have been spelled out at the very beginning. It was inevitable, of course, given the film's unsubtle setup, but it still feels like a cheat. After deftly avoiding saccharine for nearly an hour and a half, The Good Heart dives into it face first. Had it not been so obviously spelled out at the beginning, or handled differently, it may have worked. But the execution is so completely mishandled that it's impossible to forgive.

It's a shame, because most of the film is actually quite good. Cox and Dano are uniformly excellent, and the script is mostly tight and on point, creating a well worn atmosphere of an old neighborhood bar that has played host to the same regulars for years on end, each with the same casual anonymous bond. But the third act twist is so terrible that it nearly ruins it. It's strange and disappointing to see such a good film flame out so intensely at the last minute. In perspective, The Good Heart is a solid film buoyed by great performances, despite its flawed denouement and unnecessarily sappy message that seems tacked on as an afterthought. If one were to walk out 15 minutes before the credits rolled they would think they had seen a pretty good film. It's that last stretch that makes all the difference. Still, Cox is fantastic, if only the ending had done him, and the rest of the film, justice.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE GOOD HEART; Directed by Dagur Kári; Stars Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Stephanie Szostack; Rated R for language and a disturbing image. Now playing in select cities and On Demand.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Review: "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)"

Horror films have have always tried to outdo each other when it comes to shock value. The films that were shocking 10 or 20 years ago seem tame in comparison as filmmakers continually up the ante. Whereas Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was once considered envelope pushing, it seems relatively subdued by today's standards (even if it still retains its psychological power).

Now, in 2010, less than a year after the release of Lars von Trier's controversially graphic Antichrist, comes Tom Six's The Human Centipede (First Sequence), a film centered around an outrageously disgusting premise designed to provoke and sicken with equal measure. It's been causing quite a stir among horror fanatics and gore hounds, looking to become a midnight movie sensation and a kind of "I dare you to sit through this" phenomenon that challenges even the strongest stomachs.

The problem is, it's not really as bold as it thinks it is.

Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE directed by Tom Six
© 2009 sixentertainment. An IFC Films Release.

The premise is undeniably disturbing. It centers around a crazed German doctor named Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), once the world's foremost surgeon when it came to separating conjoined twins, who has lost his mind and is now experimenting with reversing the procedure and joining things together. His first experiment, with three rottweilers, which he calls his "beloved three hound," didn't last, and Heiter has his eyes set on a much bigger project. So he kidnaps three tourists, two American girls who are lost after getting a flat tire on a lonely country road, and a Japanese man who speaks no English, and performs a gruesome procedure, linking them from anus to mouth, essentially creating a human centipede with one long gastric system.

If it sounds hard to stomach, it is. Six created the idea along with a real life surgeon, taking painstaking steps to ensure that his surgically altered monstrosity is completely medically accurate. The human centipede is a horrific creation, straight out of a Nazi scientist nightmare, and Six is successful at creating an atmosphere of intense dread.

Ashley C. Williams as Lindsay in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE directed by Tom Six
© 2009 sixentertainment. An IFC Films Release.

Where The Human Centipede falls short, however, is in expanding upon its ghoulish premise. It's an undeniably creative and twisted idea, unique in its ghastly sadism, but it never really expands beyond that. This is the kind of film that attracts attention through its outlandish nature alone, but never provides anything beyond mere shock value. Its young victims are little more than typical, vapid, horror movie gore fodder, and the acting reflects that. Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter is wonderfully creepy (and is, in many ways, a perfect horror movie villain), but his co-stars fail to connect us to their characters in any way. Once Heiter makes his horrific creation, the film really has nowhere to go, and even a last ditch attempt at something deeper as a main character equates his failed life to that of an insect, seems like too little, too late.

One wonders where Six will go from here in his planned sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), which will feature a 12 person centipede. Perhaps it will give him a chance to expand upon the idea rather than rely on its squirm inducing concept to carry the entire film. Still, The Human Centipede is undoubtedly a film that will spark a lot of discussion and debate in the short term, especially amongst horror aficionados, but, never as graphic as one would expect or as inventive as one would hope, there's very little here worth recommending, even to the morbidly curious.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE); Directed by Tom Six; Stars Dieter Laser, Ashely C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Leupold; Not Rated; Now playing in select theaters.