Shadows in the Cave: A Town Called Panic



A Town Called Panic (2009, dir. St├ęphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)

This is a singularly unique French language animated feature that highlights something I have always loved in French animated movies. They are able to construct an elaborate and rich universe in a little over an hour. A Town Called Panic is a surreal and bizarre picture that is using a style of stop motion animation that is hard to describe. The characters are designed to look like toy figurines of cowboys, Indians, farmers, and other people. There are no moving mouths and no facial animations, simply very frenetic body movement and voice acting that nails the weirdness of this world.

The appropriately named Town Called Panic is a place where crisis is an everyday occurrence. In one large house lives Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Horse is the level headed of the trio and in love with a fellow equine who teaches music as the conservatory in town. Its Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian order 500 bricks to build a barbecue, however, a typing error makes that 5 million. The result is that their house is crushed by bricks. Every day they rebuild, but every night the entire house disappears. They stakeout one night and discover the weird truth behind things.

These are all hyperactive and manic characters, save Horse who keeps a level head. Part of the humor are Cowboy and Indian’s sudden leaps from passivity to complete and utter chaos. They scramble about trying to cover their errors but inevitably make things worse. There’s also a lot of humor from moments where you would expect characters to panic, that Cowboy and Indian are surprisingly unphased. Its comedy that doesn’t have any profound message or point, its akin to early Looney Toons where stories were given over to chaos and insanity.

The jokes never become vulgar or profane, so its a suitable substitute for typical maudlin family fare. In many ways I saw similarities to The Triplets of Belleville, both films created very specific characters that are richly detailed while using broad strokes. It’s also a statement against the current domination of CG animated features. At the end of the day, its not the bells and whistles an animated film can lay claim too but the creativity and inventiveness working behind the scenes.

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Wild Card Tuesdays – The Dinner Game



The Dinner Game (1998, dir. Francis Veber)

You’ve no doubt seen the trailer or commercials for the upcoming Paul Rudd/Steve Carrell film Dinner for Schmucks. This is its source material, a very small and wry French comedy that, unlike the American version never makes it to the titular dinner. Instead, we get a very clever farce from the same director that brought us La Cage Aux Follies and many other French comedies brutally remade by American studios. I’m beginning to think studios simply wait around for him to release a film so they can rush to produce a butchered remake. While not the kind of funny the American remake is shooting for, The Dinner Game will make you laugh through clever wordplay and increasingly convoluted misunderstandings

Pierre Brochant is excited about the weekly “idiots dinner” held by he and his businessmen friends. He comes upon Francois Pignon, Finance Ministry employee (think IRS agent) whose obsession is building landmarks out of matchsticks. Brochant sees this man as the perfect idiot to bring along with him. However, his wife has left him and he has injured his back on the golf course on the same day he is to take Pignon to the dinner. The squat little man arrives, thinking Brochant is offering him a book deal about his matchstick constructions. Over the course of the evening, Pignon helps Brochant makes fake phone calls to track down his wife, mistakes the wife for the mistress, and brings on of his auditing buddies over to help out, unwittingly revealing some shocking infidelities. The film appears to be heading down a maudlin path when it returns to its comedic elements in a very clever way.

Pignon is a very endearing character. He has had his wife leave him and wants to legitimately help Brochant, but he possess a short term memory and care barely retain the simple plans they hatch when calling people they believe Brochant’s wife is with. Jacques Villeret plays the role of Pignon and manages to keep him from becoming a dolt. He’s a clever, sensitive, eager to help simpleton and the audience sighs with relief when we realize he won’t be subjected to the cruel evening Brochant has planned. From what I have seen of Schmucks, I get the feeling Carrell is playing a much broader, less sympathetic version of this character and that’s a shame.

The Dinner Game plays like stage play. It’s one set with characters coming in and out, a perfect comedy of errors. Schmucks looks like it is uninterested in the simplicity of the original and is opting for complex set pieces involving outsiders that we don’t sympathize with but mock. The overly sentimental finale that the original avoids feels all but inevitable for the American remake. The irony here is that The Dinner Game emotionally earns that ending if it wants, while I suspect Schmucks will be so mean spirited that when it comes to that “our hero learns a lesson” moment it will come off as ludicrous.

Criterion Fridays – Summer Hours



Summer Hours (2008, dir. Oliver Assayas)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier

It’s always refreshing to see a film made for grown ups. Too often American dramas dumb things down, maybe out of a lack of talent in the writer or maybe a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence. Here director Assayas looks at the strange dynamic of being both the adult child of a parent and a parent to your own children. In one position you are still looked on as an infant or adolescent and in the other you are the supreme authority. This difficult place is used to examine how we deal with death and responsibilities placed on us by the dead. The whole thing is a very naturalistic, quiet piece of cinema that is rewarding and ambiguous. The answers we receive will be as open ended as the characters in the film, and like them, we have to learn to happy with that.

Helene has just turned seventy-five and has come to terms with the fact that her life is coming to an end. She takes her eldest child, Frederic aside and explains to him how the family’s vast art collection and the country home they grew up in is something she wants him to maintain and make sure her grandchildren can bring their children to. Helene dies soon after her children make their last visit to the house, all of them caught up in busy lives: Frederic in Paris, Adrienne in America, and Jeremie in China. Frederic comes together with the siblings who all want to sell off the artwork and the house as they don’t have the funds or time to maintain the property. Frederic concedes and they go about cataloging the contents of the home. Frederic maintains a sense of guilt as he watches the promise to his mother fade away.

Summer Hours is a film that will demonstrate how programmed you have become by cliched Hollywood plot devices. There is a never chance anything of major conflict with occur, no one is going to explode in an emotional rage and there will be no ironic twist of fate. This is a very relaxed film about a family and the compromises we all make as a part of families. Frederic never really puts up a fight and its hard to be angry at him. As much as his mother loved the collection her uncle had amassed and she inherited, it is almost impossible for her children to maintain it. What is interesting is how Frederic’s teenaged daughter, Sylvie feels a strong emotional connection to the country house. The opening scene is of her and her little cousins running through the woods, playing, being children. The final parallels this, but with a more bittersweet tone as it is the last time she will be there.

This is not a film that has a message for you. Assayas simply tells the story of these three adult siblings, lives without melodrama, dealing with the aftermath of the death of a parent. What you are meant to get out of the film is what ever you want. So often in American mainstream cinema scripts are locked into formulaic beats and its all about hitting certain plot notes by certain page numbers. Here no one is rushed along, no one reveals some deep dark secret. Its very refreshing, and beautiful, and ultimately stays with you a lot longer than a script that sloppily goes didactic. If you are looking for an incredibly thoughtful film that lets you decide what you want it to mean, then I think you’ll be in for a treat with this one.

Import Fridays – MicMacs



MicMacs/MicMacs a tire largiot (2009, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Danny Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Jean Pierre Marielle

Very few directors working today have as strong a sense of visuals than Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He is as influenced as much by the French New Wave as he by Golden Age Hollywood, and this mash up creates aesthetically clever cinema. But does Jeunet tell interesting stories with well-developed, fleshed out characters? That is a good question.

The story of MicMacs concerns Bazil (Boon) who, as a child, lost his father to a landmine in Afghanistan. Things continue to go downhill for poor Bazil: Mum ends up in a mental hospital, he’s shipped off to an abusive boarding school, escapes, and ends up as a video store clerk as an adult. One night, a shoot out occurs in the front of the store and Bazil takes a bullet in the cranium. After being released from the hospital, Bazil finds his home and job gone but is befriended by Slammer, a homeless man who is part of a collective of eccentrics living in a strange garbage burrow. Bazil also learns the weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine and bullet respectively. Bazil and his new family embark on a crusade to turn the two men of war against each other through series of elaborate pranks. The film basically takes the revenge pranks pulled on the grocer in Amelie and expands their scope to include human cannonballs and wiretapping.

The film has definite problems. The first is the awkwardness of pairing such a dark subject (war, death, limbs lost to bombs) with Warner Brothers Looney Toons style comedy. It’s definitely a mix that could work, but here it comes off as if Jeunet doesn’t take the concept seriously enough. Another issue I had was with the characters identified as African-French, they all have menial labor jobs or, in the case of Remington the Writer, are objects of comedic relief whose skills are a joke. Jeunet had taken some flack for the “pretty-fying” of France in Amelie and it seems like he’s trying harder this time around, but not much better.

That said, the film is very enjoyable in the same way that the circus or carnival is fun. There’s not much substance but it is fun to look at and will definitely make you laugh. Jeunet has a very clever mind and can devise some schemes that are brilliant. This is not Jeunet’s best, it can be derivative of his previous work at times, but he does take chances and brings some new elements to his art direction. A definite must see if you have the chance this spring/summer.

MicMacs will open in limited release in the US starting May 28th

Import Fridays – Un prophete



Un prophete (2009, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Un prophete is playing at the Belcourt Theater starting today.

Everyone loves a story of “boy makes good”. Nothing better than a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and making a name. The only downside is the body count. That story is what French film Un prophete seeks to tell, and colors its story with issues of racial identity, particularly how it can influence other’s perceptions of us. And the film also manages to not miss the simple moments amongst all the crime and violence. It’s in those moments that the picture shines.

Malik has just entered prison after an undisclosed crime. He’s a very young Frenchman of Arabic descent, who is incredibly nervous and introverted now confronted with years in prison. After a chance encounter with Arab inmate Reyeb, he’s recruited by the Corsican mob on the inside to kill this rival. That murder colors Mailk’s existence, Reyeb appearing in his bed in the middle of the night, his garish throat wound still present. The haunting happen in such a subtle way, Reyeb just suddenly there, Malik never jumping but living with this ghost in his mind.

Malik begins taking on more responsibilities with the Corsicans, who still view him as a “filthy Arab”, while the Arabic in prison see him as a “Corsican dog”. It’s evident that this labeling has a strong effect on Malik. Despite this internal conflict, he soldiers on, running errands while on day leave for Cesar, the head of the Corsican prisoners. What Malik doesn’t tell Cesar is that he is starting his own low level operations on the outside, particularly running drugs.

Every thing Malik does is out of an innate sense of survival. He knows he won’t make it long on the inside so he takes the murder job from the Corsicans, spending hours trying to hold a razorblade on the inside of his cheek for preparation. The film lingers on those moment of prep time, letting Malik fester in the anxiousness of what he has to do. As terrible as you know his actions will be, you still root for him, want him to get away with it because of his relative innocence compared to the weathered inmates around him.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Malik flies a plane to meet with Arabs in Italy. This is his first plane ride and, instead of skipping over it to get to the action with the Arab mob, the film pauses and lets us see Malik’s wonder at riding in a plane. He peers over his seat mate for a glance out the window and is surprised when a flight attendant brings him cookies and glass of water. Scenes like this are what make Un prophete stand out from other “rise to power” mob stories. Malik’s tale ends in the way the audience will probably expect, but its not his position as the new boss that is important, its the journey that brought him to it and the person he was that he left behind.

Import Fridays – Ricky


Ricky (2009, dir. Francois Ozon)

Starring Alexandra Lamy, Sergi Lopez, Melusine Mayance, Arthur Peyret

Ricky would be just another sappy, sentimental film if it weren’t for that opening scene. Where in the film’s chronology does it fall? The middle? The end? Both are completely plausible. The scene in question is one in which working class Katie (Lamy) is speaking to an off camera social worker about being unable to pay rent and care for her two children. Only when the end of the film is reached does the ambiguity of these scene truly surface.

The plot follows Katie who is raising a daughter and working in a chemical factory to make ends meet. One day, she meets new employee Paco (Lopez) and two begin a relationship and Katie ends up pregnant. Katie gives birth to a little boy, Ricky, and slowly but surely Paco makes a run for it when he gets scared. In the meantime, Katie and her daughter discover Ricky growing strange appendages out of his shoulders and finding ways out of his crib and onto the top of an unreachable dresser. Things develop in an odd way from there, ending with paparazzi chasing Katie and her miracle child around. The film has a touch of the bittersweet in its finale and, as I mentioned before about the film’s opening sequence, it can be seen as a downbeat film.

Ozon is balancing realism in his first half with fantasy in the second. It almost feels like two films, yet never loses a consistent style; an admirable achievement. The explanation behind Ricky’s special abilities is never explained and Ozon never shows an interest in explaining it. There are some hints: Paco’s unknown origins or the chemical factory where Katie works. But it doesn’t really matter WHY Ricky is the way he is, but that there is an unquestioning love between he and Katie. Sadly, the film doesn’t delve into this as deeply as it should and fails to earn its finale scene between Katie and Ricky. Overall, an intriguing film from a French director who is doing some stunning work in contemporary cinema.