Micmacs à tire-larigot

[Screenshot]I have generally a good track record with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I adored Delicatessen and Amélie, and liked City of Lost Children pretty well. He’s struck me as basically a French Terry Gilliam: gorgeous scenery, dark comedy, and a liberal helping of complete weirdshit. And I like Terry Gilliam (or at least, I like most of what he’s done), so generally the similarity has worked out well for me.

I’m afraid that I reservedly have to pan Micmacs. I’d still take it over any given four or five films by any other director, but it is not exactly the top of Jeunet’s game. There’s a lot of whimsy and comedy, but the basic soul of the work feels like it’s gone missing. Part of the problem from where I stand is that Jeunet, even in lighter works, has always kept me pretty off-balance. There’s a mystery, or a heavy shroud of surreality, or at least some incidental force which suggests much greater depth to the work than is apparent on the surface. But in Micmacs, pretty much all is as it seems, and the entirety of the work is mired in reality. There are early hints that there might be some deeper meaning to the shell-casing and the sketch which are Bazil’s smoking guns, but in the end it comes down to a revenge-fantasy thickly larded with political subtext. Yes, the squalor of the scavengers’ camp (and of poverty in general) is beautiful rather than dreary, and there’s a light touch of surreality over the whole work, but ultimately, it’s too relentlessly tied to real-world politics to really fly the way his previous delightful works had.

But lest I give a false impression of this film, let me reiterate that I actually liked this movie quite well. It’s extraordinary when it comes to settings and tone (Jeunet’s cinematography is generally pretty inspired), and at times quite funny, with the campy rivalry elements played to the hilt and the quirky scavengers given ample room to shine. Even working in a somewhat less-than-ideal space, Jeunet does a lot better with this work than I would trust most directors to. If you like Jeunet’s style, this won’t make you feel like your time’s been wasted; but expect something closer to Amélie than to Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. Visually, it bears much in common with the latter, but tonally, it’s definitely in a much more lighthearted and simplistic headspace.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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California Dreamin’ (Nesfârșit)

[Screenshot]I kind of expected this Romanian film to be a black comedy about Kosovo, based on the summary descriptions I read; but it’s actually a story during but incidental to the Kosovo crisis. It’s also based on a true story, but very loosely: the actual event inspiring this film was undramatic, so the causes of and the local reaction to the stranding of the unit had to be tweaked considrably.

It’s a cute slice-of-life story, which doesn’t seem to be particularly in pursuit of a particular theme, and falling into the fairly standard plot of a technoglogically and economically superior force descending upon a quiet little town and sending it into an uproar. It’s a competent play on that particular plot construction, and pleasingly non-idealistic. There are lots and lots of characters and most of them are well-enoguh characterized to feel like Real People. The acting and technical aspects are no great shakes, but they’re working with a firm story-structure foundation.

However, ultimately, slice-of-life is a bit colorless no matter how interesting the events are, which combines dangerously with the film’s ridiculous 2.5-hour length: after a while, it gets badly bogged down and it feels like too much movie for its actual plot. There is much that is good and enjoyable in this work, but I think it would actually be more enjoyable if there were considerably less of it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Inglourious Basterds

[Screenshot]Quentin Tarantino has had some good ideas. This is maybe not one of them. A lot of people loved this one, and I really can’t figure out why. It has a fatal plot-progression flaw: very early on in the film we learn exactly what’s going to happen at the end. We then spend an inordinate amount of time on a bunch of characters who, in spite of having the movie named after them, really only serve as the B plot, if one can dignify their staggering from setpiece to hardass setpiece to show off the kind of magnificent bullshit which has appeared in every Tarantino film to a greater or lesser degree.

So, er, yeah, I didn’t like it, and found it to be too much style and not enoguh substance. There’s some good in there. Laurent demonstrates an excellent acting range, so it’s nice that she gets the plto that actually matters. Waltz is a bit of a mixed bag, with his mannered performance seesawing between ridiculous camp and utter cold terror, but giving credit where it’s due, he does a good job at it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Zwartboek

[Screenshot]I wouldn’t expect Verhoeven, based on what I know of his films, to turn to historical drama, but I guess I’m glad he did, because his direction showed the technical aptitude he developed in the ’90s and a somewhat meatier and more nuanced plot. It bears a striking resemblance to another film I’ve enjoyed recently, Musíme si Pomáhat, in exploring the themes of collaboration and the shades of gray in relationships between the conquerors and the conquered in Nazi territory. This story feels mostly very human, and caught up with banality-of-evil issues, stressing the whole day-job-Nazi persona, even in the upper echelons of the occupation. There’s a long-running mystery plot which seems to cheapen the whole story and detract somewhat from its focus, but that’s a minor quibble. Overall, this story is full of well-realized and very human characters, and the film’s sympathies are distributed in unusual and peculiarly sensitive ways. On production values and plot richness, I’d actually put this ahead of Musíme si Pomáhat, while it explores some of the same issues. It’s a bit busier and has enough characters to get distracting, but in other respects it’s a stronger and more engaging film.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Musíme si Pomáhat

[Screenshot]Musíme si Pomáhat is a taut and tightly-constructed story rife with situatioal ironies and sympathy. Many of the incidental characters come across in shades of gray: while Josef and Marie are presented as authentically admirable (modulo the quite reasonable doubts for their own safety), Horst and Kepke, despite the character-blackening traits of their Nazi association, come across as, to a certain extent, sympathetic, or at least more so than the hypocritical Resistance leaders. There’s little this film does wrong (I can’t think of anything offhand) and much that it does right in its acting, plotting, and pacing. I found this another pleasant surprise on my journey through (in honesty, often mediocre) central European cinema.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

No Man’s Land

[Screenshot]Louisville has a pretty significant Bosnian population, so I’ve recently taken an opportunity to learn a bit more about th Bonsnian War. The prevailing view, in retrospect, seems to be that misbehavior was rife on both sides and that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and that this wasn’t one of those wars with a right side and a wrong side. No Man’s Land works pretty freelly with that interpretation, playing it for black humor. Its sense of humor is really very dry, drawing pretty much exclusively from situational absurdity rather than dialogue. It’s sobering, which a good black comedy should be.

Thematically, there are parts which reminded me of Hotel Rwanda: once again we have a UN force whose ability to actually be useful to anyone is incredibly limited, and a conflict whose purpose is unclear even to the participants. The introduction of the press as a force to be contended with presents something of a contrast, though. The story remains taut throughout, in spite of some downtime, so from a pacing perspective I view this as a success. In fact, there’s very little that didn’t work in this film: it has skilled actors and competent cinematography around an interesting story played straight but inherantly absurd. It mostly steers around the obvious cliches of the “brother-against-brother” wartime plot and delivers some solid sucker-punches in the plot. It’s definitely worth the under 2 hours it’ll take from your life.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Stalag 17

[Screenshot]I missed out on a chance to watch this at the HCSSiM 34th reunion shindig (it was late at night), and figured I might as well rent it to see what it was. What it was is a weird kettle of going in too many directions at once, really. The overwhelming majority of the screentime is taken up by the comic capers of Strauss and Lembeck, playing off of some wacky-Nazi stereotypes and prisoner-of-war gags. This would be fine, in a lightly comic way, except it decides about two-thirds of the way throguh that it really wants to be a drama, with accusations of collaboration and a daring escape and sacrifice and whatnot. These two separate films are, I’m afraid, rather clumsily stapled together. Holden does his best to deliver a dramatic role, but really, it’s too little and too late.

There is no reason war can’t be simultaneously dramatic and funny, mind. Dr. Strangelove managed it, as did Catch-22 (the book, not the movie). War is one of those staple scenarios for black humor. But you have to twist the knife more, and more often. When the joke is itself gruesome or self-conscious, the switch from humor to life-and-death ntensity makes a bit more sense. Stalag 17 never really managed to reconcile its distinct parts.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.