TIFF Day 7: Micmacs, gang attacks and dull, dull vikings

Micmacs a Tire-Larigot (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Few directors handle whimsy as well as Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I’ve only met two people who didn’t like 2001’s Amelie, an achingly sweet movie that somehow stays on the right side of cloying. Even the director’s darker films, like The City of Lost Children, have a core of sweetness that’s unshakeable. (Alright, this might not be true of Alien: Resurrection, but I’ll stand by it for all the films that Jeunet actually co-wrote.)

Micmacs adds a few unusual (for Jeunet, at least) elements to the mix, including politics, an area that doesn’t tend to mix well with flights of fancy. Dany Boon plays a video store clerk who gets shot in the head when he gets too close to a gunfight. Doctors leave the bullet in his head for fear that surgery could leave him permanently comatose. When he gets out of the hospital, Boon finds himself evicted and jobless, forced to live on the streets. Yet, in Jeunet’s world, this doesn’t seem like a great tragedy — merely an inconvenience.

After Boon is taken in by a motley crew of street-people (including an inventor, a contortionist and a human calculator), he forms a plan to get his revenge on the company that manufactured the bullet that shot him, and (conveniently across the street from the first target) the company that made the land mine that killed his father.

It’s the kind of caper that can only be described as madcap, and though Boon and friends are messing with arms dealers and international criminals, it never feels particularly dangerous. That might sound like a crippling problem for what’s essentially a spin on the heist movie genre, but the fun of it all more than makes up for the film’s lightweight nature. Plus, the film’s world is incredibly detailed, full of tiny touches and self-aware nods. Highly recommended.

The Joneses (dir. Derrick Borte)

Satirizing consumer culture in film is no easy task. Josie and the Pussycats tried to do just that almost a decade ago, and ended up getting criticized for indulging in the product placement and shallow consumerism it was poking fun at. The Joneses, the debut feature from writer-director Derrick Borte, initially falls victim to that same problem. Its conceit, an only slightly exaggerated take on lifestyle marketing, doesn’t feel pointed enough to make up for the constant, glowing references to real brands and products, falling a little too close to the “cheap shill” side of the art/commerce balance.

As it develops, though, the film starts to focus more on its characters and less on its critique — always a good move. Strong turns from David Duchovny and the always-reliable Gary Cole (a.k.a. Bill Lumbergh from Office Space) certainly help on that front, and newcomer Ben Hollingsworth will likely pop up more frequently after this. A heavy-handed ending and an adherence to Hollywood convention don’t do The Joneses any favours, but it’s at least my second-favourite anti-capitalist screed of the fest so far.

Valhalla Rising (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

It turns out you can make Vikings boring. All it takes is absurdly slow pacing, vague plotting and an abundance of monochromatic characters. Despite its historical focus, the movie never really finds a point, indulging in long stretches of nothingness that could politely be called reflective but don’t do much to hold interest. When violence does break out, it’s brief and brutal, but even still, it feels too matter-of-fact.

In the interest of saying something positive, I should mention the soundtrack by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter, which incorporates elements of doom and drone metal into the film’s (sparse) climactic sequences. Aside from that, Refn’s film didn’t do much for me.

Down for Life (dir. Alan Jacobs)

Based on the real life of a Latina gang leader in Los Angeles, Down for Life mixes elements of inspirational teacher flicks with Thirteen-ish “look how messed up kids are” grit for a movie that feels capital-I Important. The movie revolves around a teen’s (Jessica Romero) choice between sticking to the violence-laden path she’s on or accepting a creative writing scholarship to a school in Idaho, and how one particularly bad day forces her to examine the life she’s living. Romero is convincing enough as a street tough, but she falls short in the film’s more emotionally demanding scenes, which gives the whole film a bit of an amateurish feel. And a cameo from Snoop Dogg is baffling until you realize that his Snoopadelic Films is one of the producers. The movie’s heart is in the right place, but it’s basically a more violent than usual after-school special.

Lourdes (dir. Jessica Hausner)

When a quadriplegic woman joins a pilgrimage to the healing baths at Lourdes, it opens the door for a rumination on God, faith and the nature of miracles. It’s a very low-key film considering the subject matter, but it’s sophisticated not to pontificate; with the exception of a pair of gossiping women, the characters feel like real people rather than soapboxes. Lourdes takes its time making its points and it wraps things up on an ambiguous note, but that’s perfectly in keeping for its subject.

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