(On Cable TV, June 2018) I may not like Michel Gondry’s work all that much, but now that I’m familiar with his approach, each one of his films bothers me less and less. La Science des rèves is pure Gondry in that it mixes his flights of fancy, eccentric characters and low-tech stop-motion special effects in the service of a romantic story. It’s twee and silly and ultimately tragic (maybe) and messy in its small-budget style, but I ended up liking it more than I would have expected. Gael García Bernal stars as a young artist moving from Mexico to Paris and finding that his promised job is far less interesting than expected. Meanwhile, he falls for his next-door neighbour with results complicated by his eccentric personality and his difficulty in distinguishing dreams from reality. The street-level view of Paris is interesting, but not as much as the characters in their flawed, initially off-putting qualities. Charlotte Gainsbourg is appealing as the love interest and the treatment of French/English bilingual dialogue is something I always appreciate, but the star of the show is Gondry’s imagination, endearingly portrayed through cardboard bricolage and stop-motion animation even when (say) tap water could have done just as well. Part of the key in appreciating Gondry is letting go of logic and simply letting the film go where it wants. This goes double for the oneiric The Science of Sleep. It may not outclass Mood Indigo as my favourite Gondry (a very qualified recommendation) but its whimsical quality makes for a welcome departure from the rather more realistic movie fare I’ve been binging lately.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) I have seldom seen a film commit so thoroughly to a deliberate continuous change of tone as L’écume des jours does. Adapted from a Boris Vian novel, this film charts the sad story of an inventor who goes from love to the loss of everything. It starts with a blizzard of whimsical imagination, realized through stop-motion, bright colours, delirious details and peppy protagonists. But when a major character falls ill and dies, the entire movie gradually withers with it: the sets get smaller, the tone gets bleaker, the cinematography turns dark and monochrome and then the film … ends. As a reviewer, I was confronted with a twice-deliberate (given its literary source) downer in which the conclusion is not meant to be better than its beginning. L’écume des jours seeks to be an unpleasant experience as it goes along, as it wipes off silly smiles with the grim inevitability of death by a frozen heart. It’s a meticulously calculated downfall as well, with casual violence weaved into the fabric of the film’s imagined world well before our main characters are threatened. The star of the movie remains director Michel Gondry, bringing his highly idiosyncratic vision on-screen in a way that no other could hope to achieve. A number of memorable scenes in the film feel unique. He gets great performances by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou (in a role fitfully reminiscent of Amélie), Omar Sy and Aïssa Maïga as a secondary character who ends up taking striking actions. L’écume des jours is a beautiful but sad, hilarious and then tragic film—I won’t blame anyone if they decide to turn it off soon after the honeymoon, secure in the knowledge that it won’t get any better.
(In Theaters, January 2010) I had no preconceived notions of how the Green Hornet character should be portrayed on-screen. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have a similar blank state of expectations regarding Seth Rogen: I find his man-child shtick annoying (Gaaah, Pineapple Express, gaaah), and this film pretty much revolves around it. If the final result can be watched without too much pain, Rogen is irritating throughout, and not just because he plays a spoiled boorish incompetent: The Green Hornet flirts so effectively with the idea that his sidekick is a far more deserving superhero that Rogen becomes an intrusion more than anything else. (Big Trouble in Little China did this trick far more effectively, albeit with a hero that was far more likable than Rogen’s usual loudmouth stoner-dude.) As far as action-comedies go, The Green Hornet isn’t anything particularly special: A few laughs, a few action sequences, some interesting visuals. That’s already better than we usually get for January dumping-ground films, even those adapted from sources that few people care about. Parts of the film actually do play better than average: Thanks to director Michel Gondry’s visual sense, the action sequences benefit from judicious editing, well-placed slow-motion and a classic sense of pacing that avoids the new shaky-cam spastic-editing norms. Gondry sneaks in a psychedelic sequence late in the film, and the green color scheme is used judiciously. When Rogen shuts up and behaves like an action hero, the film works quite a bit better than when it tries to showcase his comedy. The script is particularly poor in amusing sequences, delivering scene after scene that only work if you assume that every character is mentally retarded. (Poor Jay Chou, undeservingly playing second fiddle; poor Cameron Diaz, relegated to MILF-prize for two boys.) In other hands, The Green Hornet might have been good, or at least entertaining without moments of irritation. Here, though, it just plays to Rogen’s crowd and leaves everyone else waiting until the next good moment.