Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson – crossed orbits?

While watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest directorial effort – The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet – it struck me that Jeunet can be considered Europe’s equivalent to Wes Anderson. Both directors’ films are lovingly prepared confections flavored with equal measures of whimsy and irony, topped off with exquisite set design and meticulously planned Rube Goldberg-like sequences.

To be precise, it is Anderson who should be described as America’s answer to Jeunet, since Jeunet came first – he had already cemented his reputation with Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995) by the time Anderson released his debut film Bottle Rocket in 1996. In fact, their paths converged at the 2002 Oscars, when they competed for Best Original Screenplay – Jeunet for Amelie and Anderson for The Royal Tenenbaums.

Like all good auteurs, their films also feature a returning roster of actors. Anderson has Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. I think Owen Wilson particularly, is still employed only because of the good graces of Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller! Jeunet has had the lovable rubber-faced rogue Dominique Pignon in all his films and various other actors who are not really household names outside their native France. He also tends to work with the same crew, like Herve Schneid the film editor and Aline Bonetto the production designer.

My sense that Jeunet and Anderson are two sides of the same film-making coin was subsequently reinforced when I read that Reif Larsen, the author of the book on which T.S. Spivet is loosely based, actually named both Anderson and Jeunet in a list of 6 directors that he handed over to his agent (the other directors on that list were Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry, Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton…smart man, this Larsen). Larsen was assured that his book was good, but not THAT good to attract this sort of directing talent. He was overjoyed that his agent was proven wrong when Jeunet reached out and offered to make the movie.

Sadly, it appears that the stocks of these two film makers are moving in opposite directions since 2002.

Jeunet’s follow-up to the multi-award winning Amelie was the World War I love saga A Very Long Engagement, and was considered a respectable effort garnering Cesar nominations for Best Film, Director and Screenplay. But since then, he has directed only 2 films – Micmacs (2009) and T.S. Spivet (2013) – both of which landed on awards lists and box office charts with the quietest of thuds. In fact, T.S. Spivet failed to even find a distributor for North America, a travesty in an age when all sorts of foreign films are able to find a market in the US.

Anderson on the other hand, has been more prolific and barring the relative misfire of A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), has churned out a Lifetime Achievement Award-worthy body of work that includes The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel (nominated for 9 Oscars this year). Anderson himself has personally has picked up 6 Oscar nominations during this 13 year stretch.

Therein lies the rub, for me. I actually prefer Mr. Jeunet’s films to Mr. Anderson’s, although I must admit, that jinx has been broken with Budapest Hotel which ranks as one of my top films of 2014 and with repeat viewings, may actually enter my ever-expanding list of all-time favourite films!

Nevertheless, I hold out hope that Jeunet (who is 61) will enjoy further critical and commercial success; who else could create scenes such as these…


Hollywood storytelling at the end of the silent movie era

I recently signed on for a 5 week course on, titled The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color. It is being conducted by Scott Higgins, who is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. The first week of lectures has just finished, which focused on films from Hollywood’s silent era. As part of the lecture, the students were required to watch two movies this week, both from 1928, the same year that the first all-talking feature film Lights of New York was released. I guess the 2 films – Frank Borzage’s Street Angel and Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York  – could be said to represent the apogee of silent film-making, a craft honed in Hollywood over the preceding 15-20 years.

Street Angel was one of 3 films Borzage released during the years 1927-29 featuring the romantic pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The first of them, 7th Heaven is perhaps the best known and it won him the Oscar for Best Director. Certainly it is on my watchlist now, after the experience of Street Angel. which to me showcases Borzage as a complete director. The film is a veritable encyclopedia of visual storytelling. The elaborately orchestrated opening scene features a full 360 set, complete with staircases, street furniture, moving clotheslines, animals and a number of extras…accompanied by an amazing combination of tracking, panning, crane and zoom shots. There are also scenes in the film, where Borzage uses expressionist motifs like enlarged shadows on walls, fog, forced perspectives and even a Nosferatu-like pose by Charles Farrell towards the end of the movie. But what Borzage was really skilled at was in celebrating romance, using lighting, soft focus and framing to create melodramatic scenes…his pairing of Gaynor and Farrell worked particularly well for him, given the significant difference in their heights and build. For all his skill at melodrama, there are also a couple of moments of great tenderness. The first happens when their two characters ride on a carriage early on in their relationship; she is trying to be rude to him, but he responds by putting his coat around her. During the silence that follows, their feelings for each other are clearly written on their faces and we know that Cupid’s arrow has struck. The other happens much later in their relationship, when Farrell’s character sells his only painting and instead of using the money to buy food, brings home a flower for her (the rest of the money having been collected by local tradespeople on the way home)…she throws the flower aside in frustration and we can see his heart broken; she then steps out to buy the food herself, but not before doubling back to surreptitiously pick up the discarded flower through the open window. There is a desperate degree of coincidence, contrivance, symbolism and melodrama at the end which reunites the lovers and gives the audience the happy ending which we were all rooting for.

The Docks of New York is a very different film, the chalk to Street Angel’s cheese. The story takes place over a 24 hour period at the docks of NYC. While Street Angel can be likened to a romantic opera, The Docks of New York is a grounded depiction of the seedy, raucous life of sailors and barmaids. The one aspect of the film that is similar to Street Angel is the elaborate set-pieces featuring large number of extras and long tracking shots (some of which must have required quick placement or removal of dolly tracks). Needless to say, in the silent movie era, directors relied completely on the power of visuals to make an emotional impact. The one that stood out for me early on is the scene where a group of coal stokers line up in the engine room of a ship and take a look at the bawdy graffiti on one of the walls just as they are pulling into New York; we are made aware of two worlds – the hot, dirty and sweaty world of the stokers and the ‘women and beer’ world that awaits them on the shore. This film is about how one of the stokers crosses this physical and emotional boundary – first accidentally and in the end, willingly. The stoker played by George Bancroft is a strong, silent Charles Bronson type, used to having his way with his fellow men and women. He rescues a young woman, played by the beautiful Betty Compson and this act perhaps changes the course of his life forever. At 75 minutes, this is a relatively short film; one which ends on an unexpected note, poignant but also optimistic in a matter-of-fact kind of way. It leaves the audience hoping that these two can overcome the harsh realities of their surroundings and go on to have a happy life in the future. Comedian Clyde Cook has a good supporting role as the stoker’s pal and seems to get all the best lines in the movie (delivered via intertitle cards, of course). Director von Sternberg went on to great fame directing Marlene Dietrich in the early talkie classic The Blue Angel.

I am very much looking forward to my 2nd week of lectures, which will move to the early sound era. We will watch Ruben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929) and the Marx Brothers’ hilarious Monkey Business (1931), which I have seen before but of course am happy to watch again and again.

Holiday movie watching (10 films during 40 hours of flight time): Part 1


I’ve just returned from a 3 week holiday with the family. While the timing of the vacation meant that I have not yet watched a number of high profile holiday films, I did get to watch 10 movies during a combined 40-odd hours of flight time. Here are the first 4 that I watched on the outgoing flights from KL:-

Lawless: I had been waiting for a chance to watch this adaptation of the Depression-era novel The Wettest Country in the World, about the bootlegging Bondurant brothers. This is John Hillcoat’s follow-up to the heartbreaking father-son post-apocalyptic drama The Road, which he released in 2009 and I was really keen to see how he would handle yet another book adaptation. While the settings are very different, Hillcoat continues with the spare, washed out look he used in The Road to depict the Virginia countryside of the 1930s. After watching this movie, I was reminded of The Godfather, where we had the Corleone brothers with their different personalities operating their family-run crime business. Similarly, the 3 Bondurant brothers are shown to be deeply loyal to each other, in spite of being very different in their behavior and motivation. We have the taciturn leader Forrest, played by Tom Hardy, who we saw earlier in 2012 as the super-terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Jason Clarke, who first came to my attention playing the prison warden in the remake of Death Race 2000, plays the 2nd brother Howard, who is fiercely loyal to his siblings and is the strong-man in the team. And lastly, Shia LeBeouf plays the wide-eyed, idealistic youngest brother, who joins the bootlegging trade when Forrest is temporarily put out of commission in a night time attack. Other strong characters are played by a stellar supporting cast including Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan and Jessica Chastain (surely, the hardest working young actress in showbiz today – 10 movies in 2 years!). This is definitely a movie worth watching, with a good mix of drama, action/ violence and romance.

Pommes Essen: After the violence of Lawless, I needed to watch something lighter and I picked this German children’s dramedy. Coincidentally, this story too was about a trio of siblings, this time sisters, who band together to save their mother’s hot dog stand from closing down. This is a formulaic film, which I enjoyed precisely for that reason – its predictable ups and downs, the likeable actors and the eventual happy ending.

Robot & Frank: I then watched a very different kind of movie, the debut feature film from music video and commercials director Jake Schreier. This indie film picked up a prize at Sundance early in 2012 and since then has received a number of positive reviews from film critics, although it ran in very limited release in theatres. The film is officially labeled a scifi-comedy, but is also a sly commentary on how children deal with the ageing parents. Frank Langella, who once played Count Dracula in the 1979 film adaptation, has had some fantastic roles in the twilight of his career, both on stage and in small, offbeat films like Frost/Nixon, The Box and Starting Out in the Evening. Set in the near future, the film depicts the relationship between an elderly man and the robot caretaker purchased for him by his son. Langella is well supported by a big name cast including Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler. Definitely worth seeing if you can get hold of a DVD…it’s certainly not going to come to a theater near you.

Driving Miss Daisy: I had seen this award winning film in 1990 soon after it won the Best Picture, Screenplay and Actress Oscars, but didn’t have a very clear memory of my feelings for the movie…in fact I seemed to recall that I had found it a bit boring at that time. As we were almost at the end of our 14 hour flight, I thought I would switch to something I had already seen, so that I could ‘take it easy’ and doze off if I wanted to. Well, quite the opposite happened. I felt like I was watching this film for the first time and was completely engrossed and quite emotional by the end. Truly, one of the all-time great dramas of the last 3 decades and a film that Academy members would not regret voting to the top spot…it beat out Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot and Born of the Fourth of July to win Best Picture; what a field!

Also, in the midst of watching these 4 movies, I managed to re-watch some scenes from Ratatouille, one of my all-time favourite animation films. I was even busier on the flight back to KL, watching a total of 6 movies and once again catching some scenes from Ratatouille. I’ll cover those films later this week.

Jack’s all right…thanks to Tom

I’d been following the online firestorm around the casting of 5-foot-something Tom Cruise in the role of the 6 foot 5 inch tall ex-military loner, but nevertheless had put down Jack Reacher in my list of must-see year-end movies of 2012. In fact, I had listed it along with Taken 2 as a ‘guilty pleasure’, because I didn’t really care too much if the casting worked or not, but was determined to fulfill my obligation as a long-time fan of Tom Cruise films (except for Knight and Day, but that was Cameron Diaz’s fault!).

I watched the first of my two guilty pleasures – Taken 2 last month and it certainly wasn’t as good as the original, but after watching Jack Reacher earlier this evening, I can confidently take it off that list and say that it stands on its own feet as a genuinely good, well-scripted, well-acted crime thriller, excelling in almost every aspect of genre film-making.

I haven’t read the Lee Child novel ‘One Shot’ on which the film is based, so I can’t comment on whether the sequencing of the screenplay mirrors the novel, or if some of that credit should be given to director-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. Mr. McQuarrie is no slouch; he broke through with the script for The Usual Suspects back in 1995 and then after a hiatus of nearly a decade from filmmaking came back with the excellent real life story Valkyrie in 2008. He seems to be on a roll now with screenplays to Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), The Wolverine (2013) and All You Need is Kill (2014).

The film opens with a sequence depicting just the sort of crime that gun-control advocates are crusading against in the US at the moment. In fact, I wasn’t surprised that such an excellent crime thriller has only grossed USD 77 mn at the American box office so far; I can’t imagine that the American people have the stomach to watch something that rings so close to the truth…it’s much easier to gorge on improbable fantasies like aliens, monsters or super-villains attacking New York City, isn’t it?

Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher character is introduced just as you would imagine the introduction of a superstar who also happens to be the producer of the movie…with a number of clichéd shots that show everything about the man, except for his face, knowing fully well that the audience is waiting impatiently for the moment when the camera finally settles on those familiar features.

There is some real chemistry between Tom Cruise and ex-Bond girl Rosamund Pike who plays lawyer (and Jack Reacher’s temporary ‘employer’) Helen Rodin, although the rootless nature of Reacher’s character means that there is never going to be a relationship between them.  Aussie hunk Jai Courtney is compelling as one of Reacher’s key adversaries; Mr. Courtney will be seen again in a few months playing John McClane’s son in the latest DieHard movie. But the biggest impact was surely made by 70-year-old award-winning German director Werner Herzog playing the mysterious villain Zec. The combination of the German accent and the expression-less face was chilling.

Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does an outstanding job behind the camera, especially with the car chase through the streets of Pittsburgh, the opening sequence and of course, the climax at the end.

I also enjoyed the occasional moments of humor (something rather rare in Tom Cruise films), such as the attack on Reacher’s character by a pair of bumbling tough guys inside a suspect’s house and the scene when some regular folks on the street help Reacher evade the cops.

Overall, I would be ready to sign up for more Jack Reacher adventures featuring Tom Cruise (there are 17 novels and some short stories) and if they can keep the production cost at USD 60 mn as they did in this case, then the movies are likely to turn out a decent profit.

Holiday movie watching (10 films during 40 hours of flight time): Part 2

My return trip to KL had me watching a drama/ thriller involving a hedge fund and an extra-marital affair, a sequel to an action thriller which was a surprise hit in 2008, a gritty cop drama, a coming-of-age film, a feel-good college movie and finally a hard-hitting Swiss drama.

Arbitrage: This Richard Gere thriller debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2012 and then reappeared in limited release around the world in September, to much critical acclaim. Richard Gere is utterly believable as the successful hedge fund manager multi-tasking crisis management both in his personal and professional life. Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth co-star, but the real star for me was 30-year old actress Brit Marling who first came to attention playing the troubled Rhoda Williams in the 2011 scifi-romance-drama Another Earth. While that was a somewhat ‘grungy’ role, she is resplendent here as the confident and conscientious daughter of an arrogant multi-millionaire. She has oodles of screen presence, holding her own opposite veteran performers like Gere and Sarandon. Marling has quite a few other films in the pipeline including a role as Abe Lincoln’s mother in a film about his formative years (The Green Blade Rises) and a role in Robert Redford’s upcoming thriller. Definitely, she’s one to watch out for.

Taken2: This film certainly isn’t as good as the original, but at 92 minutes it’s short enough that one doesn’t mind sitting through it. I was thinking to myself that this is the sort of role that Arnold Schwarzenegger became famous for in the 1980’s, blasting his way past overwhelming opposition and coming out unscathed at the end. Neeson has now created a niche for himself in the past 3-4 years in movies such as Taken, The A-Team, Unknown and The Grey. Hopefully he will continue to pick his projects carefully and his action career will not go the same way as that of Nic Cage. Neeson will next be seen in a similar role in the in-flight thriller Non-Stop.

End of Watch: In 2001, the LA cop film Training Day garnered an Oscar win for Denzel Washington and an Oscar nomination for his co-star Ethan Hawke. But the real star of the film was scriptwriter David Ayer, for his gritty, realistic portrayal of life on the LA streets. Ayer moved from script writing to directing in 2005 and all 3 of his films including End of Watch are set in the cops-and-crime world of LA…I guess he is Hollywood’s version of Joseph Wambaugh. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his usual best as the ambitious young ex-marine turned cop , but the surprise package is Michael Pena as his Hispanic partner. On one hand, this film is like of bromance/ buddy-cop of the past that looks at the lives and loves of the men on the streets, but as a director, Ayer has updated the delivery of the story for the found-footage generation by telling many parts of the story through camera footage from the cop car (complete with time/date stamps and other information) or from handheld cameras carried by both police and criminals.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This is not the sort of movie I would normally watch, coming-of-age films not falling within my range of interest. However, I have felt for the past couple of years that Emma Watson would likely emerge as the most accomplished of the 3 Harry Potter leads (closely followed by Daniel Radcliffe, although I do feel that his facial features will limit the roles that he will get). This was confirmed by her supporting performance in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, her first big-screen acting role outside the Harry Potter franchise. So, I was eager to see her in action once again, besides which the film had scored some decent reviews. It turned out to be rather a good film, in some segments reminiscent of the little seen Flashbacks of a Fool, which is to say poignant, filled with nostalgia, teenage love and good music. The real standout for me was Ezra Miller as one of the ‘wallflowers’.

Pitch Perfect: This too is not a film that I would have normally watched, as it’s a sort of Dirty Dancing for the  a capella set; having said that, Dirty Dancing was one of my most beloved movies when I was in college, but it’s just that I have grown out of that sort of story now. In any case, my daughter was watching it on the flight and she loved it so much, she watched it all over again right away. So I figured I would give it a shot and was pleasantly surprised to see that it featured Anna Kendrick, who first came to notice as Kristen Stewart’s friend in Twilight and then made quite a name for herself in the George Clooney drama Up in the Air. Kendrick plays a misfit freshman who reluctantly joins college to keep her dad happy, although she would much rather be pursuing a music producing career on the West Coast. She eventually joins an all-girls singing group and helps them to win the National Collegiate A Capella  Championships, while falling in love, discovering herself, reconciling with her father and realizing her musical dreams all at one go. For those of us who enjoying watching hit songs performed by college kids on stage (as in Glee), this film has quite a few enjoyable musical performances on offer.

Sister: The last movie I watched was the most hard-hitting. The Swiss film L’enfant den haut, referred to by its English title Sister, has been getting quite a lot of buzz on the festival circuit. It tells the story of a pre-teen boy who lives with his good-for-nothing older sister near a ski resort; desperate for money to buy food and household items, he becomes an expert thief, walking off with skiing equipment and selling it on the street. I find it difficult to describe this movie…it does not try to teach us any morals or send a message or make any sort of social commentary or judgment. The situation the boy and his sister find themselves in are no different from that of thousands of homeless or destitute people around the world. I guess, the movie just points to the nature of human beings, how some can have an eternal fighting spirit, while others are happy to live off the hard work of their friends or family members. None of the characters in the film are particularly likeable, so do be prepared for a rough ride once you start watching. The film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and was also nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards.

So that was my movie watching marathon experience on the return leg of my vacation. Now I have to get with the program and catch up with all the holiday blockbusters.