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Posts Tagged ‘Michel Gondry’

Me, in the office, the other day:

‘You know, can’t decide whether to go and see Mood Indigo or the Inbetweeners sequel.’

Bloke what inhabits next desk: ‘Mood Indigo? What’s that then?’

‘You know, that French arthousey thing. We saw the trailer before Guardians of the Galaxy last week, remember?’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, it had all that surreal stuff in it… Audrey Tatou… the couple getting married under water…’

‘Oh God yeah… who is it?’

‘That French guy… Michel… er… Michel…’

‘Oh, Michel Gondry. You kind of know what you think you’re going to get from his films, they’re very…’

‘Yeah. But I want to see what the reviews are like on Inbetweeners 2, plus it’s probably going to be packed out on the first day. I remember going to see Cowboys and Aliens the night Inbetweeners came out and some guy was trying to sneak his grandchildren into see it even though they were clearly underage.’

‘Yeah, well, be interesting to see if they take the opportunity to do some jokes about the fact it’s a bunch of guys in their late twenties playing teenagers. There’s some potential there for comedy.’

‘Mmm, not sure. The Inbetweeners does ironic, it doesn’t really do knowing.’

My respect for Bloke on Next Desk is considerable, and was so even before I learned he once met Jason Statham socially (used to work with Mr Statham’s one-time girlfriend), but I remain to be convinced of the wisdom of making The Inbetweeners 2, let alone going to see it, so off I trotted to see Mood Indigo. If nothing else this proves that my unerring instinct for making bad decisions is still fully operational.

moodindigo

Mood Indigo is based on a 1947 novel written by Boris Vian, the English translation of which is various entitled Froth on the Daydream or Foam on the Daze. You may be wondering just what any of those titles actually mean, in which case I wish you good luck with your wonderment, as I am supremely unequipped to provide any kind of explanation.

Romain Duris plays Colin, a carefree young independently-wealthy Parisian. He enjoys spending time with his philosophy-loving friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and his private chef Nicolas (Omar Sy). On discovering Chick and Nicolas have both embarked on the adventure that is romance, Colin decides to do the same, and after meeting the charmingly quirky Chloe (Audrey Tatou, who’s basically giving the same performance she always gives in every film she’s ever made), they embark on a breathless, whirlwind love affair. But when Chloe falls seriously ill with a life-threatening condition, it threatens to undermine their happiness forever…

So what, you may be thinking, that doesn’t sound particularly distinctive: standard issue romantic weepy, so what. Fair enough, the substance of the story is nothing particularly unusual. But there is a sense in which the actual plot of Mood Indigo is the least notable thing about it, for this is how a fairly typical scene from early in the film plays out:

Nicolas has baked Colin and Chick an enormous decorated cake. To make space to allow him to serve it, he clears the existing plates and other crockery off the table with a shovel. Colin is delighted with the cake and insists Nicolas joins them in partaking of it. Nicolas initially demurs. Then the front door rings, and as usual this is a trigger for the doorbell to turn into a six-legged mechanical insect which scuttles across the floor. Somebody whacks the doorbell-insect with a blunt implement, causing it to split into many smaller doorbell-insects which pursue and devour each other until the last survivor resumes its place on the wall. The person at the door turns out to be Nicolas, who has gone off duty to eat the cake.

The cake is cut and proves to be stuffed with pink cotton wool, along with a couple of bottles of the scent of famous philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (no, Michel, stop: my sides). Chick is a massive Partre fan and guzzles down one of the bottles eagerly. Meanwhile Colin has received a telegram from Chloe arranging a date, and…

Oh, you get the idea. The wild visual invention and whimsical surrealism of Mood Indigo is, well, relentless. My heart began to sink before the end of the opening credits as I realised just exactly what kind of a film this was going to be: probably about the moment when I realised Colin shared his apartment with a mouse, realised by an actor in an utterly unconvincing mouse costume. Then came the moment when it was revealed that Colin’s preferred method of emptying his bathtub is to drill through the bottom and allow the water to irrigate the plants in the flat below, or the revelation that his great invention is the pianocktail, a musical instrument that prepares a drink based on what tune you play on it.

Now, please don’t get the idea that I’m against visual flair or style or wild invention in films: of course I’m not. And, on some level, the sheer work-rate of Mood Indigo in this department is quite impressive. But there’s so much of it, and most of it just feels like directorial showing-off rather than anything meaningful. Gondry isn’t using the surrealism to illustrate the mood of the characters or the theme of the story – it just seems to be there because he thinks it’s clever or funny. Maybe this is a French thing, because the two French guys on the end of my row were killing themselves laughing most of the way through. I think I cracked a smile maybe two or three times all the way through.

The whimsy doesn’t even let up as the story goes on and the mood of the piece turns much darker than you might expect: the film’s unorthodoxy extends beyond surrealism, to ripping up the traditional romantic-comedy-weepy story-structure. The problem is that I found the studied non-naturalism of the story made it impossible for me to engage with it on an emotional level – unless you count being irked to the point of severe annoyance by endless, pointless surreal sight-gags. As a result I actually found it quite a struggle to stay awake to the end of Mood Indigo, which isn’t something that often happens to me, and never during a film that I’m genuinely enjoying.

Then again, this is a film from a very particular culture, and the product of a extremely distinctive sensibility. Your mileage may vary. But for me, the problem isn’t just that the visual style doesn’t always suit the story, it’s the two are frequently pulling in opposite directions, crippling Mood Indigo as a genuine story, as opposed to a collection of extravagant visual quirks. Not that this necessarily guarantees that Inbetweeners 2 will be a better film: but one way or another, I can’t imagine it being close to as annoying as Mood Indigo.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  May 6th 2004:

A couple of years ago, there was nearly a strike in Hollywood about – amongst other things – the possessive credit. This is when a film opens with the legend ‘A Film By Reuben Claxheim’ or something similar. Where the same person writes and directs the film, this seems fair enough, but it’s the instances when the director appears to ignore the writer’s creative contribution that caused the dispute.

But it does seem to be the case that films are defined by their star or director, rather than their writer. Everyone thinks in terms of Hitchcock films, barely aware of the army of scribes the great man employed. It’s just one of those things. Well, except in the case of Charlie Kaufman, arguably the only star screenwriter currently working. Kaufman is the man responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now he’s written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry.

This is the rather Phildickian tale of Joel (Jim Carrey), a New York cartoonist coming off the back of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Already distraught, he is very nearly traumatised to learn that she has had all memories of him erased by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his rather shabby team of assistants. Understandably, Joel decides to wipe Clementine from his own memory, not realising that once begun, there’s no way of halting the process…

This being a Kaufman script the plot is inevitably much less straightforward than that precis makes it sound. This is certainly a much denser and stranger film than the cast list (which includes Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) would suggest, and anyone turning up for some knockabout laughs with Jim Carrey acting like a gimp is in for a rude awakening. (I suspect this film may generate some rather poisonous word-of-mouth because of this – two people quite separately stumped past me muttering ‘Boring crap’ at the end of the screening I went to.) Eternal Sunshine is essentially more of the neurotic surrealism that Kaufman is famous for, grounded by some naturalistic cinematography and some affecting performances.

Truth be told (and as anyone who read last summer’s review of Bruce Almighty will know) I’m not a particular fan of either Carrey or Winslet in normal circumstances – but here they are both likeable and touching, particularly in the film’s opening sequence (some films have a twist ending – this probably qualifies, but goes one better and also has what’s arguably a twist beginning!). That said, many of their scenes together are set in Joel’s rapidly-dwindling memory, and – despite some visual pyrotechnics from Gondry – things do get a tiny bit samey. It’s probably just as well that there’s another major strand revolving around the messed-up relationships of Mierzwiak’s employees, who have a convincing and amusingly shambolic attitude to their work. Dunst is good, but then she can do sweet-and-vulnerable-but-troubled in her sleep. Rather more interesting is the way that Elijah Wood has opted to play a rather less than wholly sympathetic character in his first post-Baggins outing – he makes an impressive job of it, too.

But I can’t help feeling that, overall, Kaufman is writing himself into a Shyamalan-esque corner – Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have anything like the novelty value of his earlier films. It’s not actually a bad film, but it’s neither as clever or as funny as the best of his work. The fact that there’s already been one film about memory erasure already this year (and I feel certain there have been more, but I can’t remember what they were) isn’t exactly a help.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially an arthouse movie that’s somehow lucked into getting an A-list cast and a major release. It’s a well-played, intelligently written and directed piece of work – even if the conclusion feels like the film is straining too hard to surprise the audience. I liked it, but even so, I don’t think it’s nearly as original or witty as it thinks it is. And Kaufman’s reputation as a ‘name’ should stay intact: this is one for his fans more than those of Carrey or Winslet.

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We appear to have reached an interesting point in the evolution of the superhero picture as a distinct genre in its own right. This kind of movie now seems to be enough of a fixture for film-makers to be able to start playing with its conventions without worrying about the audience not getting the joke. To be fair, this has been happening for a quite a while – most notably in 2008’s Hancock – but I was reminded of it while watching Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet.

In the UK, at least, the Green Hornet’s name-recognition factor probably rates around the same as that of characters like Archie the Jungle Robot or Captain Hurricane, which is to say he’s incredibly obscure. To be strictly accurate, the Hornet isn’t really a superhero at all, originally appearing as a masked vigilante in a pulp-derived radio show in the mid-1930s (and thus predating the first true superheroes). Still, these days he tends to get lumped in with them and Gondry’s movie is no exception to this.

Oafish slacker Britt Reid (Seth Rogan) finds his life changes forever when his newspaper-publisher father (Tom Wilkinson, sort-of slumming it) dies, leaving him in charge of the family company. Now an oafish millionaire, Britt takes to spending time with his employee Kato (Jay Chou), but when a prank takes an unexpected turn the two find themselves unexpectedly becoming vigilantes – a role Britt is keen to pursue further, adopting the persona of faux-villain the Green Hornet and enlisting Kato as his accomplice. After all, they make the perfect team – Kato bringing his coffee-making skills, and also expertise in weapon design, vehicle construction, and spectacular martial arts to the partnership, while Britt brings… Britt brings… well, basically he just shouts a lot and falls over. Little does Britt realise that his activities as the Hornet are causing some turmoil to local crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), only exacerbating the mid-life crisis the poor man’s already going through. Sure enough, a show-down between the two is soon on the cards…

As you can probably tell, The Green Hornet functions at least partly as a comedy, which is a brave way to go with an established and indeed venerable character. A few years ago, plans to do a comedy version of the DC character Green Lantern starring Jack Black were rapidly abandoned when they were met with bared fangs from the fanbase – so either the Hornet’s fanbase just doesn’t care or there aren’t enough of them to be worth cultivating.

It’s the comedy element that makes this film distinctive, anyway. It’s not what I’d describe as a mainstream comedy – it’s a little more oddball and deadpan than that in places, as one might expect with Gondry on the case. I found Waltz’s performance particular droll, as he experiments with various increasingly absurd gimmicks and catchphrases in an attempt to be a more interesting criminal. Elsewhere things are a tad more conventional, as Cameron Diaz shows up to deploy her comedic skills in the usual charming way, and Seth Rogan… well, shouts and falls over a lot. (Also in the cast, James Franco is uncredited, Edward Furlong is unrecognisable, and Bruce Lee – whose association with a previous version of The Green Hornet may be the only reason the character’s endured – is given due reverence.)

That said, this isn’t a pure comedy by any means, and in places the film does make a grab at moments of genuine gravity and emotion not entirely unlike some of those in The Dark Knight (a brave move, given that that film has set the gold standard for superhero movies). As a result the tone is extremely choppy in places, as the clashing styles bang into one another. The script, overall, does the job, although some of the storytelling just isn’t up to scratch (characters have dialogue like ‘As you know, I was your father’s most trusted employee for thirty-five years…’ So why are you telling him that, other than for the audience’s benefit?). It improves as it goes on, and the cheerfully destructive climax picked me up and swept me along by virtue of its sheer energy and bravado.

The Green Hornet isn’t what you’d call a truly great movie, and some elements of it definitely work better than others, but on the whole I was rather entertained by it. If there’s a place amongst superhero comics for more left-field fare, as well as the big-name characters, then hopefully the same is true for superhero movies too. Anyone interested in funding my expressionist rom-com adaptation of Squirrel Girl?

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