For more than twenty years, Michael Winterbottom has kept up a restless pace, directing almost a movie a year. So he can’t be faulted for being lazy or blocked. And there’s always thoughtfulness, a sense of purpose at the core of everything he’s attempted. But, perhaps as a symptom of his assembly-line approach to his filmmaking, Winterbottom’s track record is, by and large, pretty mixed. For every In this World and A Mighty Heart, he’s churned out half-baked product like Code 46, 9 Songs and his latest, TrishnaWinterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Read the full review
Archive for the ‘Foreign’ Category
When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, we lost among the last of a certain breed of artist: the socially conscious classicist. Ray was influenced in equal parts by the Western artistic tradition and by the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, perfectly realized in the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. In Ray’s cinema, we find compositions at once present and detached, functional yet poetic, serving a masterful formalism absorbed from Renoir and De Sica, Ray’s cinematic mentors. Within that framework jostle themes of survival amidst loneliness, the status of women, the decadence of the rich, old-world hypocrisy and new-world corruption, all of which rattled the Bengali status quo. Like Tagore’s sensuous riverscapes, Ray’s worlds — from the downtrodden huts and tenements of the Apu Trilogy to the ornate drawing-rooms of Jalsaghar and Charulata — thrive with detail. His cinema trains us to pay attention to set design, body language, gesture, the words left unsaid, all the while guiding us with the telling close-up, the insinuating tracking shot, the long take, the play of light and shadow.
“The Stranger” was Ray’s last film. I would not place it among his greatest, nor is it a film I would choose to introduce Ray to those unfamiliar with his cinema. But as the filmmaker’s final statement, a slap in the face of an entire social class — one that Ray devoted several pictures to criticizing — it’s as direct and as graceful as they get. Here is one satirical comedy that speaks its mind and doesn’t have to feel ashamed about itself in the morning.
On the surface, “The Stranger” is about trust and identity, as the well-off Bose family of Calcutta is paid a visit by a man who calls himself Mitra (Utpal Dutt) and who claims to be the wife’s long-lost uncle. Explaining his 35-year absence to his niece Anila (Mamata Shankar), Mitra recalls how, as an arts student in the mid-50′s, he chanced upon a picture of the Altamira cave paintings — primitive stone-age art that, he knew instantly, could never be rivaled for its authenticity, its immediacy. “After Altamira,” Picasso declared, “all is decadence,” and, after journeying all over the West, Mitra would surely agree. Having roamed the “civilized” quarters of Europe and America, Mitra explains how he grew bitter with the West’s obsession with technology (and nuclear one-upmanship), while its sickest and poorest continued to suffer. He turned to living with Native Americans and South American tribes. Civilization is just a cover, a word behind which all manner of evils and hypocrisies exist. “Savage” cultures, on the other hand, may not be perfect, but at least they are honest about themselves and co-exist peacefully with their environment.
Mitra’s presence in the Bose household triggers suspicions over his motives. While Anila bids to authenticate Mitra’s identity, humoring him with conversation and Bengali hospitality, her husband Sudhindra (Deepanker De) stashes away the family’s art pieces, and snoops out whether the self-proclaimed uncle’s sudden appearance has anything to do with a decades-old unclaimed inheritance. The only member of the family most open to believing Mitra and believing in him is the Boses’ young son, Satyaji (Bikram Bannerjee) — still innocent of social wiles.
Gradually, Ray uses Mitra’s presence to get at something deeper and more insidious, namely, that tendency in our “civilized” natures to judge self-righteously any culture we consider inferior or “savage.” The idea is first treated comically as Ranjan (Rabi Ghosh), a buffoonish actor, turns up and tries to suss out the visitor. His bungling efforts only show him up for what he is: a gossip-monger, a purveyor of lowbrow and scandal, something that Mitra has tried to escape from his whole life. Later on, a tragic version of that scene unfolds, this time as a mock cross-examination in which Prithwish (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a pompous lawyer, grills Mitra about his history and tries to shame him for his affinity with “barbaric” peoples. His efforts, morally anyway, have the exact opposite effect. For all his Enlightenment rationale, Prithwish’s bourgeois values, rife with double-standards and quick-to-condemn arrogance, makes him exactly the sort of “civilized” personality Ray is railing against throughout “The Stranger.” It’s during this sequence that we begin to sense that Mitra is, to a great extent, a stand-in for Ray himself, eager now in the twilight of life to sound off against the bourgeois smugness festering in his own culture. Indeed, we find Ray’s doppelgangers in both Mitra and the innocent Satyaji (a name not far removed from Satyajit) — characters who’ve either yet to be corrupted by “civilization” or who have successfully withstood its effects.
Mitra is not permanently estranged, though; there is hope at home, evidenced by Anila and Sudhindra’s final gestures to shed their urbane trappings. Their attempt to reconcile may be but a slight concession to our “wild side,” but it speaks volumes in Ray’s subtle vocabulary. In terms of its pacing and subtlety of style, “The Stranger” is arguably among Ray’s least accessible works. Those familiar with his cinema, though, will know where to look to find rewards — we find it in the cavernous corridors, stairways and antiques of the Bose household, bespeaking bourgeois indolence; in the sequence of carefully timed close-ups as the camera roves between faces masked in half-light; we find it in the extraordinary sequence in which Anila tries to impress Mitra with her sumptuous lunch of mutton, fish, lentils and Bengali “fancy crisps” — items that amuse more than awe the worldly and modest Mitra. With Ray, we’re guaranteed standout performances — whether farcical or dramatic — and The Stranger is no exception. Dutt, as the wise, gently acerbic Mitra is the film’s eloquent center of gravity, while De, Ghosh and Chatterjee are all pitch-perfect, variously flummoxed, bumbling or self-consciously stern. “The Stranger” cannot boast the lyrical energy of Ray’s 1955-1975 period; it’s the product of an artist whose temperament (and health) had since mellowed. It is, however, a beautiful valediction by a great filmmaker anticipating his own departure, whose message is as profound as any in a majestic career.
Written/Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Dipankar Dey, Mamata Shankar, Bikram Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh, Promode Ganguly
German filmmaker Fatih Akin, noted for award-winning dramas like “The Edge of Heaven,” takes a stab at comedy and romance with “Soul Kitchen,” an experiment in lunacy and laughs for Akin but an endurance test for the rest of us. Lacking character development and clean story construction, Akin’s film subsists on antic set pieces that try to wring laughs but come up dry.
The title refers to the comfort-food restaurant owned by the oafish Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with director Akin). With his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) on assignment in Shanghai, Zinos throws out his back while attempting to lug around a dishwasher in his restaurant kitchen. Too injured to cook, he hires a passionate but ill-tempered chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), but his sophisticated concoctions turn away the restaurant’s regulars. Meanwhile, Zinos’ convict brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) weasels his way onto the wait staff so that he can get extended parole. Tensions mount when both tax and health inspectors show up with ultimatums, and the cutthroat realtor Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) turns up the heat on Zinos to sell his restaurant
While Zinos and Nadine’s relationship goes the way of the Skype end-call button, Illias falls hard for Soul Kitchen’s sexy waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke). As word of the restaurant spreads to area hipsters, business starts to boom and so do the dance beats as Soul Kitchen takes off as a culinary and nightclub hangout. Akin saturates the soundtrack with the obligatory soul, funk and hip-hop for no good reason except to justify the film’s title, and to punctuate his themes of youth, fun and freedom. Zinos himself demonstrates no special connection with music or, for that matter, with cooking or running a restaurant.
Endless scenes of young people partying float along on semi-clever gags and generic good cheer, and do nothing to punch up the plot or enrich the central characters. As the object of Illias’ attraction, Lucia is a stock bohemian: She’s got the sullen pout, the exotic dance moves and the cigarette dangling from her lips. Both she, with her frumpy rebelliousness, and the waiter Lutz (Lucas Gergorowicz), who’s a garage band musician with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, represent not characters but ideas for characters. Then there’s the unamusing curmudgeon Sokrates (Demir Gökgöl), a freeloading tenant of sorts in Zinos’ building. He’s a contemptible fly-on-the-wall type, hovering in the background, amounting to nothing. Indeed, Akin’s entire roll call of characters is comprised of ciphers and social clichés.
Blame “Soul Kitchen’s” script for the mess. Every joke, sentiment and set piece (one involving a Honduran aphrodisiac has predictably raunchy results) strains for effect, each falling flat. Zinos comes off as a clueless tool in whom we invest our total indifference, and his cohorts are largely throwaways forgotten no sooner than we leave our seats. Structurally, the script tangles together multiple strands, as the personal and professional pieces of Zinos’ life smash together, and it hasn’t a clue how to take its characters through the requisite beats of what is allegedly a story about a man’s search for self. Just as “Soul Kitchen” is allegedly an attempt at bright, witty comedy.
Directed by: Fatih Akin
Written by: Fatih Akin, Adam Bousdoukos
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan, Lukas Gregorowicz, Dorka Gryllus, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Demir Gökgöl
In “House of Flying Daggers” — as in his previous outing, “Hero” — director Zhang Yimou transfigures the martial arts movie into a grand, international-quality outing. When Ang Lee made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he managed to balance big-budget production values with the needs of an intimate narrative. Balance, however, is not the word to describe Yimou’s latest (nor, for that matter, “Hero” whose heavy-handedness taxed my patience to the brink).
Yimou is a wonderful filmmaker, renowned deservedly for his incisive studies of Chinese society–using interpersonal politics as archetypes for society at large and the historic past as an allegory for the present. Indeed, “Flying Daggers” may be read as sociopolitical allegory, but that fancy stuff matters little if you can’t deliver on the fundamentals of story, a love story in this case.
Of concern is a love triangle involving a blind girl, a government cop and a rebel. It’s Yimou’s way of saying that true love is blind and goes deeper than whose side you’re on, whether it’s the establishment or the resistence. Zhao Xiaoding’s sumptuous cinematography introduces us to 9th century China. A rebellion led by the eponymous guerilla fighters against the corrupt Tang Dynasty fractures the country. When cocksure cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) discovers that blind dancing girl Mei (the ever-gorgeous Ziyi Zhang) is, in fact, a Flying Daggers infiltrator, he poses as a raffish vagabond and tries to win her trust (and her heart), aiding her escape from government soldiers so as to worm his way into the rebellion’s inner sanctum. After saving her life–at least three times, by my count–Jin and Mei realize they love each other madly, in spite of their differences. Vexing their thorny affair is Leo (Andy Lau), one of Mei’s comrades and a former flame, posing now as a government officer. Passions among the trio lead to predictable territory: Leo fumes with resentment over Mei’s waning love for him while Mei and Jin bid desperately to keep their love burning in a time of windy upheaval.
There’s much in “Flying Daggers” to fill the eye and distract the senses, whether it’s Huo Tingxiao’s exquisite production design — especially the mandarin-baroque interiors of a royal bordello — or Emi Wada’s meticulous costumes. And Yimou knows how to stage himself an action scene: Flashing swords, daggers and bodies swirl amid a gamut of dramatic setpieces and, as a showcase for pure cinema, it’s riveting stuff. At its worst, the movie’s action feels repetitious, a tiring succession of climaxes, a tedious two-hour excuse for this director to indulge his fetish for digitalized blood and daggers and for immaculately composed nature shots. It’s all an empty shell of sound and fury that Yimou’s script (co-written by Li Feng and Wang Bin) fills with skimpy characters, clichéd plotting, and a lot of hand-wringing. “Flying Daggers” is epic tedium–the best reason yet to wish that Ang Lee had never let slip that Pandora’s Box of digital gimmickery, allowing for an entire genre to lose its down-and-dirty essence.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Dandan Song
“Friday Night” isn’t so much about a romantic encounter or a chance fling as it is about the emotional liberation of a lost, unhappy young woman. In co-writer/director Claire Denis’ words, Laure (played serenely by Valerie Lemercier) is “between two worlds.” Indeed, Laure is at a critical juncture in her life. When Denis’ movie opens, we find her packing up her Parisian apartment quietly, methodically, like a dutiful prisoner preparing to head off to her new cell. That new cell is her boyfriend’s apartment into which, come morning, she plans to relocate.
The movie’s opening scenes, so dreamily quiet, deliberate, meditative, lingering over the subtle sounds, rhythms and textures of Laure’s surroundings, prepare us for a most rewarding cinematic journey. That journey begins in Laure’s car as she sets out for dinner at a friend’s. She finds her way choked with traffic due, no surprise here, by a Parisian transit strike. Inching along, Laure finds comfort in her last, quiet night of “freedom” before offering a ride to Jean (Vincent Lindon), a roguishly handsome man stranded for lack of public transport. The two strike up a pleasant rapport, but, in Jean, Laure finds all that she desires in herself. An unspoken, simmering attraction develops amidst nothing more than polite exchanges and the dull groan of traffic.
Writers Denis and Emmanuele Bernheim (drawing from her novel) reject the obligatory patter and backstory revelations that just-met romantic partners are saddled with, opting for a riskier, purely cinematic approach. Their script, and Agnes Godard’s intimate camerawork, finds its greatest dramatic resource not in effusive dialogue or action—there’s surprisingly little of either in the movie—but from the telling gesture, glance and look. The gentle expressiveness in the leads’ performances lends “Friday Night” its graceful, unforced appeal. When passions do break through, Denis’ camera, rather than gaze on voyeuristically, clings lovingly to their bodies, to whispers, scents and contours. The actors too opt for a refreshingly muted approach, erotic without being bump-and-grind obvious.
As delicately as night turns to day, Denis depicts Laure’s transformation, crafting in the process a lovely tone poem about a woman’s emerging self-assurance. The grace note of “Friday Night’s” final shot is something only a filmmaker of Denis’ skill and humanism could have managed, inviting us to speculate longingly about Laure’s future, surprising us with how much we’ve actually come to care.
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Emmanuele Bernheim
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon, Helene de Saint-Pere
Alexander Sokurov’s “Father and Son,” his second part to a proposed trilogy that began with 1997’s “Mother and Son,” doesn’t so much push the boundaries of cinema as immerse itself in its deepest, most subliminal, depths. Like its predecessor, “Father and Son” takes, as its hook, the tortured dynamics of the parent-child relationship. Here, a son’s bond with his father is strained by his desire to depart and create his own life. The son, however, must first reconcile with his resentment over his motherless childhood and his grudging loyalty to his father.
In Sokurov’s hands, these characters feel as light as air, as if summoned by the storyteller from some vague dream. Indeed, what makes his movie so appealing, even thrilling, is how he breathes cinema into each frame, and invokes a sense of otherworldliness. In a literal sense, “Father and Son’s” message has no particular weight, but, as cinema, it echoes its yearnings by appealing to some darkly sensitive corner of our minds stimulated only in deep sleep.
Alexander Burov’s ethereal cinematography places us in a rooftop flat in an unspecified European port city. Here, a widower (Andrey Schetinin) shares an especially strong bond with his teenage son (Aleksey Neymyshev). The father has never healed from the long-ago death of his wife, a woman who still holds sway over his heart. The son, meanwhile, struggles with nightmares of killing his father (as Oedipal a hint as you’ll ever get), and with committing to a local girl.
The father dotes over him and beams with pride as his son, following in his footsteps, goes through the rigors of his military schooling. He senses, though, that their separation is inevitable and that he must overcome his mourning and renew his life with another woman. Hence, the two find themselves on the brink of daunting changes, something Sokurov physicalizes by placing their drama on the precarious roofs and ledge-spanning planks of their apartment house.
Throughout the movie, one son or another questions his father’s authority or else a father’s memory haunts the son. For instance, the son’s friend — in one of the most rapturous sequences to appear in any movie — wonders why his father divorced his mother, why he took to alcoholism and abandoned them. The sequence is steeped in the movie’s trademark amber glow and in the hushed sounds of the tram, the city’s cobbled streets and a muted mix of electronic and classical strains, underscoring the movie’s theme of generational collision. It’s a moment that makes you take notice of how, with lyrical precision, a movie’s visuals and sounds can make it sensually transcendent.
“Father and Son” is a cinematic tone poem that, for all its pleasures, can also be frustratingly obtuse. The tension and reconciliation between the father and son are never conveyed pointedly enough to move us because Sokurov is too preoccupied with how to merely insinuate meaning from the gentle drift of his story. The movie, hence, skips and floats in the shallows without ever boldly speaking its mind. Never mind, though, because Sokurov is too seductive a fabulist for conventional nit-picking. His movie is so physically rich and alive that, for a hit of pure cinema, you could no better in this blunt-edged summer-movie season than to spend a few moments reveling in its high.
Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Sergei Potepalov
Written: Andrei Shchetinin, Aleksei Neymyshv, Alksandr Razbash, Fyodor Lavrov, Marina Zusukhina
“Crimson Gold” is the latest import from that world cinema hotspot, Iran. Scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, the movie is Jafar Panahi’s follow-up to his widely praised “The Circle” (2000) and finds him continuing to explore the theme of the individual pushing feebly against inexorable social forces. But, while “The Circle’s” power erupted from its live-wire, all-female ensemble, the cold austerity of “Crimson Gold’s” style and dramaturgy all but strangles any emotional resonance the movie might have had.
Panahi frames his movie in a jewelry store where a robbery has gone tragically wrong; in a fit of rage, Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a glowering bear of a man, shoots the storeowner then, as pedestrians watch in horror, turns the gun on himself. Panahi then rewinds his narrative to make the case for how a combination of demoralizing circumstances turned this low-key, working-class schlub into a violent criminal. Amid the teeming streets of Tehran, Hussein ekes out a living on his moped, delivering pizzas. We see how he endures the snobbery of a wealthy jeweler, the material indulgences of a garrulous, patronizing playboy and, on one night as he delivers pizzas, the bullying of a policeman who blocks his progress as he ambushes guests leaving a party, arresting them on charges of dancing in mixed company. Hussein’s fiancé, meanwhile, is boggled by his morose detachment and her brother, Ali, can’t seem to snap him out of his stupor.
Hussein’s urban breakdown has echoes of Travis Bickle’s but with none of the latter’s engaging, expressive fury. We sense that Bickle is essentially a moral character driven to vigilantism in the name of his own, admittedly warped, sense of pride and morality. “But what does Hussein want?” we ask ourselves. “What does he yearn for beneath all this repression?” Indeed, under the relentless drone of his moped, we sense no impetus in Hussein: no yearning, no calling. So we do not especially care what happens to him.
Even Fassbinder’s Hussein-like Hans Epp in “Merchant of Four Seasons,” a movie that hews closer in tone to Panahi’s than does “Taxi Driver,” wants something—a measure of peace and acceptance after a lifetime of grief. Indeed, several scenes in “Gold” have the unsettlingly raw feel of Fassbinder’s cinema, right down to its halting, unactorly technique. Emadeddin is a non-actor (he is, by trade, a pizza deliveryman), but, more than that, he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Panahi knew this when he cast him, and it might have been far more poignant to acknowledge Emadeddin’s mental illness within his narrative rather than to work around it, to absorb it within his story-fabric, thereby adding to, rather than stripping down, the emotional texture his characters so badly need.
The impression that Panahi did his damndest to make “Crimson Gold” as elusive and distancing as possible runs like a stake throughout this movie. Panahi may have turned his camera on a fascinating society-in-transition, but it reveals so frustratingly little and remains so stubbornly alienating as to render the whole thing an artful failure, a moped-fueled odyssey into dramatic weariness and monotony.
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji
Dread may be our most primal response to the unexplainably grotesque. If you reflect on the high water marks of Hollywood’s post-60s horror canon, you may find that the best–among them “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” and the more recent “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others”–all masterfully elicit and sustain dread. David Lynch, not really a horror filmmaker, has traded in the elements of horror from the beginning: Consider that cavernous thrum and echo that reverberates through the sound design from “Eraserhead” to “Mulholland Drive” and which foreshadow the nightmares, murders and dangers that saturate his dread-filled cinema.
As “A Tale of Two Sisters” attests, Korean writer-director Ji-woon Kim has well absorbed the lessons of Kubrick and Lynch. This tantalizing blend of psychological horror and chamber drama is propped up on the question of what is imagined and what is real–similar to M. Night Shymalan’s design for “The Sixth Sense” or Alejandro Amenábar’s for “The Others.” Unlike those filmmakers, though, Kim doesn’t strive to create fully rounded, sympathetic characters. Instead, he goes for a macabre fairy tale dynamic within which his main characters–a pair of adolescent sisters traumatized after their mother’s death, a sinister stepmother, and a guilt-ridden father–function more as archetypes in the Roald Dahl mold.
Kim concocts a puzzle box of a story–turning the past and the present, dreams and memories into slowly cohering pieces–as Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim), just released from a mental asylum, arrives with her sister, Soo-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) to live at her father’s country house. Tensions begin brewing between the sisters and their stepmother (a terrifically chilling Jung-ah Yum) who may or may not be responsible for their mother’s gruesome demise. Soo-mi, who is deeply attached to her curiously quiet sister, seems troubled by her burgeoning womanhood (much is made of menstrual blood), terrorized by her stepmother and by nocturnal visions of her dead mother, all while her father hovers ineffectually in the background. “Two Sisters” teases us with bits of information, never providing quite enough to substantiate its weight of psychodrama and its final-act revelation feels tacked on just to tie up the frilly ends of its plotting.
Story weaknesses might easily undo your average Hollywood horror outing, but in “Two Sisters,” story is merely as a springboard for Kim’s bravura filmmaking. His movie is a delirious mélange of styles that absorbs us for two solid hours. Depicting the placid environs of his setting, Kim crafts a lovely, unhurried naturalism before he guides us through his forboding interiors wherein his movie becomes a kaleidoscope of color schemes and visual tones, from the retina-searing crimson of pubescence and death, the creams and blues of memory, to the bleaker hues of stepmotherly deception. Kim’s tour de force culminates with a Lynchian descent into madness, in which the sepiatoned past collides with its blood-spattered consequences in the present. “Two Sisters” poses gross questions of causality and character development, but when a filmmaker can wield his palete with such joyous and assured fury, who knows how to spook you with bursts of cinematic dread, you don’t ask questions. You just enjoy the ride.
Written/Directed by: Ji-woon Kim
Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-Young Moon
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature since 2004’s “A Very Long Engagement” brings with it the bag of tricks that’s come to distinguish this director’s offbeat seriocomic fables. As with the similarly minded Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam’s tall tales, Jeunet’s films have a distinctive aesthetic and sensibility: The syrupy sentimentalism, the wry sight gags, the gentle physical comedy, and the impressively textured, sepia-toned visual palette, all of these make up both the pains and pleasures of a Jeunet joint, and they’re served up in ample portions in his latest effort, the comedy “Micmacs.”
Revenge is the name of the game as Bazil (Dany Boon), sweet and somewhat dopey (a common character trait in this director’s cinema), goes after the weapons manufacturers responsible for his father’s death in a landmine accident long ago, and, now, for his near-fatal wounding from a bullet made at one of their factories. Bazil enlists the help of a quirky and talented band of social outcasts, who go by such names like Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a cheerfully grizzled prison veteran; Remington (Omar Sy), a towering, garrulous African prone to verbal clichés and “I Spy” histrionics; Buster (Dominique Pinon), a world-famous human cannonball; Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup) and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), both of whose talents are obvious.
By day, the misfits scavenge for junk that they cleverly and resourcefully transform into wonderful, magical knick knacks, and, by night, they share a comfy camaraderie over meals cooked up by their feisty matriarch (Yolande Moreau) in a ramshackle version of what the movie’s press notes aptly call their “Ali Baba’s Cave.” Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant find entertaining ways to develop the group’s chemistry as Bazil orchestrates elaborate measures to get back at the nasty, rival war profiteers (Andre Dussollier and Nicolas Marié), both drawn as amusingly cutthroat baddies. By shaping his film in the spirit of a convoluted heist flick (think Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11”), Jeunet both sustains our interest as “Micmacs” becomes a series of comic traps and stunts, and creates a spunky dynamic among Bazil’s comrades as each brings his or her special skills to bear on the high jinks.
Bazil’s big plan is to play the profiteers against each other as each tries to negotiate an arms deal with African warlords. Eventually, the “Micmacs” gang gums up the deal, and make the profiteers’ lives increasingly paranoid and miserable. The convolutions of the plot are really beside the point as the main attraction here is the Rube Goldberg plot mechanics, held together by Jeunet’s pacing and spirited style, along with a game cast in which every member – while not exactly a fully rounded creation – feels like a nicely delineated cog in “Micmacs’” wheel.
In its smoothest moments, Jeunet’s set pieces have the feel of Tati and, as the well-meaning hero, Boon has a pleasing facility of physical comedy that would be right at home in Monsieur Hulot’s world.
Don’t scrutinize the revenge storyline too closely, though, because it’s all but perfunctory. Bazil’s determination to teach the war mongers a lesson gives impetus to the plot, but, because everything here is played for laughs, Jeunet’s characters are too broad for us to take any of them seriously, including the villains. That’s why the movie’s last-act bit of activist outrage, as characters hold up photographs of war victims for the profiteers to see, feels so disingenuous, if not downright inappropriate. Still, there’s a soul to “Micmacs,” and it lies in the moments in between all the plotting, when its characters get to share their personalities, yearnings, and heartaches, and where Jeunet gets to redeem himself.
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Cast: Dany Boon, André Dussollier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Julie Ferrier, Nicolas Marié, Marie-Julie Baup, Michel Crémadès, Yolande Moreau, Jean-Pierre Marielle
French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” has all makings of an epic saga. His story charts the big, transformative beats of three main characters against the backdrop of two nations’ shifting political fortunes across nearly 40 years of mid-20th Century history. Briskly paced and tautly acted, “Outside the Law” also stubbornly remains a film of surfaces: Its characters are alive with passion and purpose, but the script and direction lack the necessary facility for fleshing out complex, conflicted human beings.
Aiming to examine the relationships of three Algerian brothers between the 1920s and the early 1960s when Algeria won its independence from France, the project demands keen dramatic and humanist sensibilities. But, as much as we grow to understand them, the characters in Bouchareb’s tale remain static, just cardboard stand-ins for Big Ideas – Sacrifice, Freedom, Ambition – and never appeal to us as organic, sympathetic creations.
In 1920s Algeria, three sons, Saïd, Messaoud and Abdelkader find that French colonial authorities have uprooted them and their parents from their ancestral home. Fast forward twenty years, and we see that Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is an agitator for Algerian independence, participating in nationalist demonstrations. The younger Saïd, however, runs a boxing racket, managing scrappy street fighters and taking bets. After French police open-fire on a massive demonstration, Abdelkader gets hauled off to French prison along with scores of fellow revolutionists. Fast forward another 8 years and we find Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) fighting in Indochina as a French Army soldier while Abdelkader continues to whet his political anger behind bars. Saïd and his long-suffering mother (Chafia Boudraa) escape Algeria, finding shelter in a shantytown with other Algerian refugees outside Paris. Here, Saïd starts off as a small-time pimp before graduating to a more deluxe gangster lifestyle as a cabaret owner.
“Outside the Law’s” action kicks into gear once Messaoud returns from war and he teams up with the now-released Abdelkader in backing a militant-nationalist outfit. Freedom for Algeria is a sacred goal for Abdelkader, one for which he and those closest to him must be willing to sacrifice everything: He struggles to resist returning the affections of a lovely French sympathizer (Sabrina Seyvesou), and he throws a wrench in Saïd’s dream of managing a champion boxer. And, as much he vowed never to kill again, the former soldier Massaoud turns essentially into Abdlekader’s henchman, guilt-ridden and distant from his new wife and son.
The film’s last third settles into a cat-and-mouse game as French Army investigator, Faivre (Bernard Blancan), leads a crack team to hunt down Abdelkader and his co-conspirators. Having thus far failed to find his dramatic footing, Bouchareb at last finds what he wants to make: A film of chases, assassinations and machine-gun battles, a kind of politicized gangster chronicle. Had “Outside the Law” succeeded in its earlier, more difficult passages as an interpersonal drama about compromised dreams, this section might’ve felt profound, especially as it would’ve underscored the ironies and tragic costs of freedom and nationhood.
But where’s the heartbreak when no one deviates from their pre-set programming? Abdelkader, Messaoud and Saïd are one-way characters, their cross-purposes and conflicting motives too often feel repetitive. Apart from one wonderful scene in which Abdelkader and Messaoud joke about the dance-ability of American pop music, the brothers’ relationships never feel familiar, nuanced, but humorless, almost robotic. Their mother too is merely a clench-jawed emblem of perennial sacrifice. Bouchareb marks time skimming the surfaces of his characters’ souls before he give himself free rein to let the bullets fly.
Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb
Written by: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Sabrina Seyvesou, Samir Guesmi, Thibault de Montalembert