Thursday, January 20, 2011


If you are burnt out on big-budget American blockbusters, with their plot cliches and the same explosions over and over, check out some of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's work.  Well, his French movies, anyway, like Amelie or The City of Lost Children --- I don't know if I can forgive him for Alien: Resurrection.  The man has a gift for visual flair and a kinetic style that is tough to match by any filmmaker in any film genre. 

The full title of this film is Micmacs a Tire-Larigot (shortened to just Micmacs for its American limited release in 2010), which translates into "Non-stop shenanigans," according to Wikipedia.  According to free French-English translation websites, it translates into "Micmacs Pull Larigot."  Hmm...not a good sign for the movie's subtitle quality.

When he was just a boy, Bazil's (Dany Boon) father was killed by a landmine.  The tragedy took its toll on his mother, who was institutionalized soon after, leaving Bazil to the mercy of orphanages.  Thirty years later, Bazil is working at a video store, reciting the dialogue to The Big Sleep (an excellent choice, by the way) in time to the film.  Outside, he notices something straight out of an action movie; a masked motorcyclist and a car with tinted windows are exchanging gunfire in the street.  Bazil catches a stray bullet, right in the forehead.  He doesn't die, though; the bullet is lodged in his brain deep enough where surgery will leave him a vegetable, but leaving the bullet in will let him live a normal life...until the bullet kills him without warning.  The surgeon flips a coin, and Bazil is given the gift of life, albeit one with a practically guaranteed abrupt ending.  While he was hospitalized, Bazil lost his job, his apartment, and all his belongings.  Really?  This is "Non-stop shenanigans"?!?

After being homeless for a while, Bazil is taken in by a group of eccentric junkyard dwellers who have fashioned a cave out of salvaged junk.  The leader of the group is Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), who, fittingly enough, mothers the group.  There is Slammer, a long-jailed former felon; Buster (Dominique Pinon), a former Guinness Book-worthy human cannonball; Calculator, a Velma-looking girl who can calculate just about anything; Remington, a writer who seems to speak only in cliched prose; Tiny Pete, a frail old man with the strength of three men and a fondness for building intricate scrap-metal marionettes; and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist.  Well, I suppose this cast of characters reduces the chance of this becoming an existential film about the never-ending well of depression and hopelessness.  While out collecting junk to bring to his new home, Bazil discovers an intersection with two businesses of note directly across the street from each other.  On the one side is the arms manufacturer who made the landmine that killed his father, run by Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie); on the other side is the arms manufacturer of the bullet in Bazil's brain, run by Nicolas Thibault De Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).  Bazil walks into Fenouillet's business first, asking to speak to the company president to talk about the bullet in his head; he is roughly escorted out of the building.  Bazil then poses as a waiter to gain entrance to a banquet in Marconi's building; there, he hears Marconi give a speech about his dedication to making more devastating (and profitable) weapons in the future.  Seeing that these two companies are completely remorseless, Bazil and his new friends decide to take them down the only way they can: eccentrically.

Wow.  It is difficult to watch a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film and not notice the co-writer/director's touch in every scene.  The camera is rarely still for more than a moment; the effect can be dizzying at times, or dreamlike at others.  The sheer amount of detail is astounding; each and every one of Tiny Pete's cool little creations look like it took at least a week to make.  There are animated sections of the movie, flashbacks set in a completely different film style --- heck, the opening credits were a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood.  As busy as this movie is, it is one of the more subtle cinematographic efforts I have seen by Jeunet.  Most of the visual effects are small, but they reward attentive viewers.  And fans of Jeunet can catch treats, too, if they pay attention; I noticed two scenes that featured the Micmacs movie poster and one scene that (I think) referenced Jeunet's first film, Delicatessen.  Regardless, this is still an obvious change from typical film style, and I appreciate the change of pace.  Jeunet's greatest strength, though, is his ability to tell a story without much exposition.  Things happen fast in Micmacs, but the tale is told largely through the facial expressions of the characters involved; you could watch this film without subtitles, still follow the plot, and still be amused.  Jeunet is a master of getting the best non-verbal performances out of his actors, which complements his visual style of storytelling.

The acting isn't great in Micmacs, though.  Dany Boone is a dull lead actor and, aside from his occasional bullet-induced brain malfunctions, he plays a straight man for everyone else.  His romantic interest in the film, Julie Ferrier, is better, but her character is too eccentric to take seriously.  Frequent Jeunet collaborators Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau are amusing enough, but are fairly one-dimensional.  My favorites out of the cast of heroes were definitely Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades) --- he reminded me of the old man in Geri's Game, the Pixar short --- and Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), because she was adorably nerdy.  The most entertaining actors, though, were definitely the villains.  Nicolas Marie's self-aggrandizing and heartless performance reminded me of Christoph Waltz, but that might have been influenced by his gray beard.  Andre Dussollier was creepier, though, because he looked more like a typical businessman, but his hobby was to collect body parts from famous people and keep them in bell jars.

Even the best performances in this movie are not terribly deep, though.  What do you expect from a movie that takes the issue of international arms dealing and makes an adorable revenge tale out of it?  Personally, I think it should have had a little more weight to the story.  I'm all for lighter fare, but the movie starts out on such a downer that it is hard to believe that this wasn't meant to be more satirical than it ended up.  With the sad start to the film, Jeunet sets the audience up to identify and care about Bazil, but once his goofy friends are introduced, there are no more efforts to develop his character.  If he changed as the film progressed, there would be a sense of accomplishment.  Instead, the film focuses on the amusingly ludicrous plots the good guys use to frustrate the arms dealers.  I don't know...I liked watching the film because it was cute and quirky and so very unlike just about everything else on the market.  When the movie was finished, though, I realized that I just didn't care one way or the other how things turned out.  Still, it was fun and different, just not one of the director's better efforts.

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