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HTF Blu-ray Review: MICMACS (from the director of AMÉLIE) (1 Viewer)

Michael Reuben

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Micmacs (Blu-ray)




Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes whimsical fairy tales, but they’re usually just as dark as anything from the Brothers Grimm. That signature style, demonstrated in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, got Jeunet the unenviable task of directing Alien: Resurrection, where he managed to give a lousy script an interesting look, turn a profit and return to France with enough clout to make Amélie, his biggest success to date. But in many ways, Amélie is Jeunet’s least typical film. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it’s Jeunet’s only fairy tale filled with sugarplums. Usually they’re populated by monsters.



Micmacs is Jeunet’s first film since 2004's historical romance, A Very Long Engagement, and it represents something of a return to form. The film is an urban fairy tale set in modern Paris, and it has some nasty monsters, but they’re cartoonish and comical, and the good guys teach them a well-earned lesson (however improbable the means). The film’s title means “shenanigans”, and the original title was Micmacs à tire-larigot, which translates roughly as “non-stop shenanigans”. It’s an apt description for both the plot and the cinematic technique.





Studio: Sony


Rated: R


Film Length: 104 min.


Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1


HD Encoding: 1080p


HD Codec: AVC


Audio: French DTS-HD MA 5.1


Subtitles: English; English SDH


MSRP: $38.96


Disc Format: 1 50 GB


Package: Keepcase


Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 28, 2009 (France); May 28, 2010 (U.S.)


Blu-ray Release Date: Dec. 14, 2010





The Feature:



Like many fairy tales, Micmacs is about a poor orphan who, against all odds, ends up on top. His name is Bazil, and his story can be summarized very simply. Having had both his childhood and his adult life destroyed by the products of two arms merchants, Bazil sets about bringing down both of them. He’s aided in his quest by an assortment of oddballs with bizarre skills – seven in all, because Jeunet conceived the group as a contemporary Seven Dwarves to Bazil’s Snow White.



Much of Micmacs plays like a silent movie, with minimal dialogue that could have been shown on title cards. It opens in 1979 in the Western Sahara, where a group of soldiers are clearing land mines. One of them detonates, claiming the life of a soldier who is Bazil’s father. When the news is received back in Paris, it’s too much for the boy’s mother to bear, and she suffers a breakdown. Bazil is shipped off to a harsh Catholic orphanage. All he knows of his father’s fate is something he spotted in a military photograph: the insignia of the mine’s manufacturer.



Thirty years later, Bazil is a loner who works nights in a Parisian video shop, but now he’s played by French actor Dany Boon, who has a marvelous sad sack face that could have made him a silent film star. One night, as Bazil is watching The Big Sleep, which is obviously one of his favorites, some tough guys whiz by shooting at each other, and a stray bullet crashes through the store window, hitting Bazil in the head. (Another bullet tears through a DVD for Micmacs, one of many playful self-references that Jeunet drops into the film.) Bazil doesn’t die, but the surgeon can’t risk removing the bullet. By the time Bazil is released from the hospital, he’s homeless, out of a job, broke and has lost all of his possessions. But he does have a shell casing from the bullet that hit him, and it bears the maker’s name.



Bazil survives on the street as best he can. In both style and sentiment, his adventures evoke Chaplin’s Tramp. Eventually he meets his Parisian “Seven Dwarves”. They’re a colorful group of outcasts and misfits who live in a junkyard under the watchful eye of Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), where they devote their energy to “salvage”. They include Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a wily old strategist, who is one of only two men known to have survived the guillotine (it jammed); Fracasse (Dominique Pinon, a staple of Jeunet’s casts), a former human cannonball and general daredevil; Remington (Omar Sy), a wordsmith named after his typewriter, whose linguistic skills consist of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cliches; Petit Pierre (Michel Crémadès), an artisan and tinkerer who would put Rube Goldberg to shame; Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup), so named because she can measure anything accurately at a glance; and La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier, with a Russian body double), a contortionist of exceptional flexibility.



Then, purely by chance, Bazil discovers that the bullet maker and the manufacturer of the mine that killed his father are rival companies. In the convenient geography that only fairy tales can provide, the rivals are located on the same street, directly across from each other. Each is headed by a flamboyant and cold-hearted villain. Marconi (Nicolas Marié) fancies himself a man of wit and culture and loves to quote poetry, but he also quizzes his son on statistics like the megaton yield of the Nagasaki A-bomb; when Marconi cites the French poet “Rimbaud”, his son thinks he means Sylvester Stallone. De Fenouillet (André Dussollier) is a blusterer and bully, whose hobby is collecting body parts of famous dead people; he cherishes Marilyn Monroe’s molar, and currently he’s pursuing Mussolini’s eye.



Bazil sets off to take revenge on the men who destroyed his life. A hopeless quest? If he were alone, perhaps, but Bazil has help from his friends. Together they deploy an intricate plot of espionage, deception and blackmail that would put the IMF to shame, and indeed many of their exploits are consciously modeled on Mission: Impossible, of which Jeunet is a fan. In Micmacs, though, the ruses and mechanisms are as improbable and ramshackle as those in M:I are sleek and high tech. A running joke is that the gang’s equipment is always breaking down, because all of it is salvaged gear. Still, pluck, determination and a pure heart count for a lot in fairy tales, and good ultimately triumphs over evil. Bazil even falls in love and lives happily ever after (or as long as a man with a bullet in his brain can be expected to live).



One of the pleasures of Micmacs is that it tells you at the outset that everyday credibility should be checked at the door. This is a fantasy world that borrows liberally from ours but has its own internal logic. A born filmmaker, Jeunet cannot help but imagine his fairy tales in celluloid terms. Silent film is a reference, but so are other eras from Hollywood. The title sequence is a loving recreation of a black-and-white Forties movie, and the soundtrack is dominated by vintage Max Steiner scores from such films as The Big Sleep and The Flame and the Arrow. Some sequences recall Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, e.g., an elaborate routine with a cannon and a massive explosion that suggests all the Acme-inspired mishaps from every Roadrunner cartoon edited together (and, miraculously, no one gets killed). Jeunet includes enough references to real wars to make it clear that he has no sympathy for the arms dealers, but his true revenge is to turn them into Wile E. Coyotes.



Dany Boon was not the original casting choice for Bazil, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing him. Capable of both a Keaton-esque deadpan (when Bazil is dealing with others) and a Stan Laurel expression of panic (when the bullet in Bazil’s brain gives him visions), Boon grounds the film with the sadness of a man who has given up on life and expects only bad things, because that’s all he’s ever known. In the end, when something good stands before him, he hardly knows what to do.




Video:



Sony has done their usual reliable work in reproducing Micmac’s distinctive visual style. Jeunet loves warm colors, and, with a few notable exceptions, the entire film is bathed in an amber glow suggesting old postcards. Detail is exceptional, which is especially important for the cluttered frame depicting the junkyard habitat where the motley crew that adopts Bazil lives and works. Black levels are excellent, as can readily be observed in a scene in Marconi’s apartment where the lights are switched off and then back on again (for nefarious purposes). As is becoming common with contemporary film stocks and digital processing, film grain was virtually undetectable, but I did not see any evidence of artifacts or inappropriate digital tampering.




Audio:



As presented in DTS lossless, the soundtrack for Micmacs is every bit as playful as the visuals, with all sorts of incongruous and exaggerated sounds coming from all directions. Artificiality rules the day, e.g., in a scene involving a computer upload to the internet (it’s a key plot point), where the sound designers have combined elements from both a Mac and a PC – a detail that Jeunet notes with obvious delight in his commentary. The terrific score consisting of Max Steiner compositions (in contemporary recordings) and new music by Raphaël Beau (in his first outing as a film composer) has immediacy and presence, perfectly complementing the antique look of the cinematography. The dialogue is clearly presented, as least to my ear for French.




Special Features:



Commentary with Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jeunet needed a translator when he made Alien: Resurrection, but his English is fluent now, though heavily accented. He speaks quickly, and you have to pay attention, as he identifies locations, points out CGI enhancements, notes contributions by the actors and discusses his influences, which are numerous and diverse (Once Upon a Time in the West had major impact and inspired a particular scene). At one point, Jeunet notes that Micmacs was shot by a different cinematographer than his usual collaborator, Bruno Delbonnel, because Delbonnel was busy filming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – at which point Jeunet says that he was offered Harry Potter and turned it down, because so much of that visual world had already been invented, leaving him with too little freedom.



The Making of Micmacs (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (47:22). This documentary won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film, but if you have, it’s unusually well-crafted and absorbing. Instead of relying on typical techniques of interview or voiceover, the documentary makers use careful shot selection and precise editing to provide a close look at multiple shooting days and locations. You get to see everyone at work, and the documentary neatly conveys a sense of the workaday challenges of making the film, but without succumbing to tedium or triviality. And there are often surprises, such as when Amélie’s Audrey Tautou happens by a location where Jeunet is filming and gives her former director a hard time for making a movie without her.



Q&A with Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Actress Julie Ferrier (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (10:40). This exchange was filmed after a screening at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Jeunet does most of the talking, and the questions cover a broad range of issues. It’s a lively and informative discussion.



Animation: Absurd Deaths (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (2:14). At several points in the film, the deaths of historical characters are presented in animated form. Here, some of the animations are presented in their constituent elements, starting with a basic sketch.



Trailers. The film’s trailer is presented in HD as a separate extra. At startup the disc plays trailers for Sony 3D technology, Animal Kingdom, Lebanon, Please Give and Get Low. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button, and all but the Sony 3D trailer are available from the Features menu, along with trailers for Mother and Child, Inside Job, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, Tamara Drewe and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.



BD-Live. This function was not yet enabled at the time of this review.




In Conclusion:



Jeunet’s antiwar sentiments were already evident in A Very Long Engagement. (European storytellers usually pick World War I when they want to expose war’s futility.) Using arms dealers as his contemporary villains was a logical next step. There’s a point near the end of Micmacs where a small tear occurs in the film’s cartoonish fabric, and we get a glimpse into the real world. It occurs when the two villains, Marconi and De Fenouillet, are confronted with pictures of children maimed by their weapons, a chilling reminder that their business practices have dreadful consequences. Depending on one’s sensibilities, the scene is either an abrupt shift in tone or a timely reminder that all the fun and games are ultimately about something serious. The latter is an appropriate sentiment for a director who cites A Clockwork Orange as a major influence.





Equipment used for this review:



Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)


Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)


Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough


Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier


Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears


Boston Accoustics VR-MC center


SVS SB12-Plus sub
 

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