There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.
Based on H.G. Wells' classic 1898 novel this War is set in a contemporary world where the threat of terrorism looms around every corner. But not even the brains at Homeland Security can prepare the human race for this kind of an attack. After a series of mysterious and powerful lightning storms strike all over the world giant three-legged war machines long buried beneath the earth rise up and start incinerating everything--and everyone--in sight. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) a divorced New Jersey dockworker horrifyingly witnesses the first strike in this catastrophic alien invasion. He is suddenly faced with protecting his estranged children--teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning)--after they are left with him for the weekend. Traveling across the ravaged countryside Ray takes them on a journey to reunite them with their mother and gets caught up in a desperate tide of refugees fleeing from a seemingly inexorable and merciless enemy. But are they really unstoppable? Ha! We'll see who has the last laugh you nasty old susceptible aliens.
As I watched Tom Cruise run and hide from the invading aliens I didn't once think about Scientology antidepressant drugs or Katie Holmes. Not once. That's because no matter what kind of personal issues Cruise has going on at the moment he is a consummate actor drawing you into his on-screen world without missing a beat. As deadbeat dad Ray Cruise aptly exhibits an apathy to his prodigy only to then turn into a courageous American hero fighting to protect the ones he loves without one clichéd speech or false moment. Quite a feat. Of course he also has a lot of support from his co-stars especially Dakota Fanning as his daughter in keeping things genuine. While either playing terrified with fervent screams or deadly still from shock the young actress' tearstained face gives the whole horrific experience a very human quality. Man imagine what's she's going to do once she's an adult. Chatwin (The Chumscrubber) also does a fine job as the rebellious teen whose growing need to join the fight has his dad torn up inside. Tim Robbins makes a memorable appearance as a refugee on the verge of madness holed up in a bombed-out basement and ready to single-handedly take the aliens down. And finally as a nice touch we hear Morgan Freeman's deep resonate voice open and close the film with very poignant passages from H.G. Wells' literary masterpiece.
Spielberg's back--and what a relief! A War of the Worlds update is just what he needed to rejuvenate himself especially after his latest slate of tepid movies (i.e. The Terminal A.I.). I mean it has been a long time since we've seen the passionate Spielberg--the special-effects driven director who challenges himself to make the most visually stunning movies ever (Jurassic Park Raiders of the Lost Ark) or the finely tuned director who can create the most incredibly intimate movies against a historical backdrop (Saving Private Ryan Schindler's List). And nothing on this earth inspires Spielberg more than aliens especially now that he has grown older and wiser since his kindler gentler E.T. days. Keeping to Wells' original source material and paying homage to both Orson Welles' infamous 1938 radio play (both are set in New Jersey) and the original 1953 film (a marvel of special effects for its time) War is an absolute seat-gripping wonder to behold. From the beginning of the Tripod war machines' reigning terror disintegrating poor souls with their heat rays or snatching them up in the air with their tentacle extensions (to use for a very gruesome task indeed) it's shockingly realistic. The only small drawback is showing the actual aliens especially in this sophisticated day and age of Alien and Independence Day. It just isn't necessary and adds very little to the already mounting tension. But it's a small quibble. This War will give you nightmares for weeks.
The vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Stuart Townsend) wakes from a hundred-year sleep to the rock 'n' roll present day and likes what he sees and hears. Tired of the vampire's solitary life he becomes the frontman for an unknown rock band and transforms it into the latest greatest thing gaining the adulation of millions. He also decides to disregard the unspoken rule that vampires must hide away from the rest of world and writes songs encoded with specifics of the secret life of vampires. As expected Lestat's lyrics draw the attention of both the bloodsuckers who want to destroy him and the human vampire scholars (called the Talamasca) who want to study him. One young Talamascan student Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) becomes obsessed with Lestat after reading his journal from the 1800s. She learns that Lestat had a brief encounter with Queen Akasha (Aaliyah) the most ancient and dangerous vampire to ever exist and the mother of all who walk the Earth in search of blood. He gets his chance to meet Akasha again when his music awakens her from an ancient slumber. She rises and seeks out Lestat to become her king and join her in ruling the world.
The film truly belongs to Townsend and fans of the Anne Rice's novels will be happy to know he completely embodies the charismatic vampire Lestat. The little-known Irish actor who starred in last year's indie About Adam with Kate Hudson rules the screen whenever he is on it and luckily he's on it quite a lot. He's especially powerful when he is in rock star mode. Although Moreau's Jesse is fairly one dimensional she comes alive in her scenes with Townsend. Let's hope they keep asking him to play Lestat (when and if they make any more films from Rice's vampire novels) and next time give him an actress he can have some real chemistry with. The late R&B singer Aaliyah made her second film appearance in Damned as the queen. Even though she is only in the film a short time she possesses a certain charm as the ancient and evil Queen Akasha and makes a great first impression by destroying a vampire coven. Yet her acting skills are just not up to par with the rest of the cast including the charismatic Vincent Perez as the vampire Marius and Lena Olin as the kind-hearted vampire Maharet.
Damned was set to be released in the fall of last year but word of mouth had the film destined for the video shelf before it even made it to the big screen. Then tragedy struck and as the news of Aaliyah's untimely death echoed throughout the world of entertainment Warner Bros. wisely decided to hold onto it and release it in theaters at a more favorable time knowing there would be an audience who'd want to see the singer's last film. Yet for all the bad press surrounding it Damned actually pleasantly surprises you due largely in part to Townsend's mesmerizing performance. Michael Rymer's direction is not a masterpiece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it has a certain MTV quality about it which makes it appealing. That same quality however also makes it too slick glossing over the meatier parts of Rice's novel making the dialogue and action trite and sometimes downright silly. Come to think of it the 1994 Interview With the Vampire also suffered from the same thing. Maybe translating Rice's words is harder than it looks.