Micmacs (DVD)

Bullet in the head

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet may not be the most prolific of film-makers, having made just 11 movies in the past 32 years, but he’s certainly one of the most interesting. And just as there were 10 years between his masterpiece Delicatessen (1991) and Amelie (2001), so nearly a decade has passed since Jeunet introduced the world to the quirky delights of Paris as seen through the wide eyes of Audrey Tautou, meaning the time is right for another slice of French cinema Jeunet-style. And even though Micmacs doesn’t have the charming Ms Tautou at the helm, it’s still an utterly beguiling piece of pure entertainment.

Bazil (Danny Boon) is a video store clerk, with seemingly no loftier ambitions than to learn the dialogue to all his favourite movies. One fateful day, however, Bazil is hit in the head by a stray bullet and it changes his life forever. With the bullet lodged in his brain casting a shadow of imminent death, Bazil struggles to make a life for himself on the streets. Falling in with a crowd of second-hand dealers, who welcome him into their junk-pile home, Bazil soon finds happiness. But when he discovers that the company who made the bullet is just across the street from the one that manufactured the landmine that killed his soldier father, he is galvanized to action. Teaming up with his new friends, including ex-con Slammer (Jean-Piere Marielle) and the aptly named contortionist Elastic Girl (Julie Farnier), Bazil concocts an elaborate and far-reaching plan that will bring down the corporations that have brought him such heartache.

Although dealing with such weighty themes as weapons manufacture and the black market arms trade, Micmacs handles these themes with such vibrancy and wit.The whole thing plays out like a colourful, manic fairy tale, the story zooming through glorious set pieces and enchanting sequences involving Bazil’s wonderfully concocted plans. It’s like an old-school heist movie mixed with the finest slapstick; Ocean’s Eleven meets Buster Keaton turned up to 11. It’s so beautifully crafted, artistically stylised that it would take multiple watches to take everything in, from the exquisite refuse sculptures built by Tiny Pete (Michel Crémadès) to the bullet-induced visions Bazil has when under pressure. And the cast more than stand up to the surreal, mad-cap antics, being a hugely likeable and quirky bunch who work well together. Leading man Boon is perfectly cast, lending Bazil an innocence and vulnerability which make him the pefect Jeunet hero.

Colourful, dazzling and utterly wonderful, Micmacs is another ravishing romp from one of the masters of modern French comedy. 4 stars

Extra Features
Just an interview with Jeunet.
2 stars

Stars Danny Boon, Jean-Piere Marielle
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Format DVD & Blu-ray
Distributor E1 Entertainment
Released June 21

Surviving Summer (DVD)

Angst in her pants

Released as Greta in the USA and re-titled for its straight-to-DVD UK release, Surviving Summer occupies an awkward space between (young) adult drama and tween coming-of-age fable. For while it’s clear that star (and co-producer) Hilary Duff is keen to move on from her squeaky clean Hannah Montana Disney poster-girl image, this film is not accomplished – nor edgy – enough to entice an older audience, while at the same time being near enough to the mark to alienate much of Duff’s fanbase. And a 15 certificate, brought about by strong themes and a smattering of foul language, has cast Surviving Summer adrift in a demographic where it is going to struggle to find a foothold.

One thing is for sure; this is Duff as you’ve never seen her before. She is 17-year-old Greta, a smart-mouthed teen who, upon being dispatched to her grandparents’ (Michael Murphy and Ellen Burnstyn) for the summer, immediately declares her intention to commit suicide when she turns 18. Living by her own ruled, Greta ignores all boundaries and rides roughshod over the locals, her rudeness and selfish behaviour knowing no bounds. When she meets restaurant chef Julie (Evan Ross), however, Greta begins to realise that life may be worth living after all, and the stage is set for a journey of self discover and redemption.

Unfortunately it’s a journey that follows a dot-to-dot path of cliche and platitudes, with each step feeling more tired and well-worn as the film progresses. There’s no attempt to mine new territory or give the film its own identity; it’s as if the filmmakers are content to bet the farm on the shock value of seeing the squeaky-clean Duff play such a bad girl – albeit one couched in MTV-inspired terms of inoffensive rebellion – to carry the movie, rather than rounding out the narrative or the characters. And what such great players as Burnstyn and Melissa Leo, who turns up in a small cameo as Greta’s despairing mum, are doing in this dross only adds to the confusion. One for die-hard Duff fans only; and even they may find her riot grrrl turn a tough act to swallow. 1 star

Extra Features

Stars Hilary Duff, Ellen Burnstyn
Director Nancy Bardawil
Format DVD
Distributor Icon Home Entertainment
Released June 21

The Last Station (DVD)

Final chapter

As the author of literary masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy is a figure of huge cultural importance, and an inspiration felt across the globe. Michael Hoffman’s film, however, takes a far more intimate look at this great man; set during the last year of Tolstoy’s like, the story focuses on his passionate yet fractured relationship with his wife of 48 years.

Having become a revered figure in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has rejected the trappings of celebrity and embraced a more simple lifestyle, joined by the thousands who have responded to his teachings and beliefs by forming the Tolstoy movement. His wife Sofia (Helen Mirren) does not share his views, however, believing that they should be more concerned with securing the financial future of their own family. She is in direct conflict with Tolstoy’s devoted disciple Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) who is urging Tolstoy to sign a new will leaving the rights to all of his works to the Russian people. Into this fray comes new secretary Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) who witnesses a family being fractured by the ideals he himself holds so dear. When he decides to leave Sofia she is left devastated, but when he becomes too ill to continue, stopping at an isolated railway station in Astapovo, the couple – and Valentin – realise what is truly important.

The very definition of a character piece, The Last Station is a stunning example of a group of accomplished actors at the very top of their game. The assembled cast breathe vibrant life into these figures from history, with Plummer and Mirren being absolutely mesmerising as the explosive couple at the heart of the narrative maelstrom. McAvoy, too, is perfect as the innocent thrust into the fray, being the eyes and ears for the audience, while Giamatti lends just the right balance of earnest devotion and duplicitous scheming to the shadowy Chertkov.

Hoffman has done a marvellous job adapting Jay Parini’s novel for the screen and it’s handled with skill by Hoffman (One Fine Day, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) By focusing on the man, rather than the literary behemoth, they have presented Tolstoy in universally recognisable terms; as a husband and father whose beliefs about love define who he has become in his final years. It is, in truth, a love story, between Tolstoy and Sofia, and also between him and his disciples and it is accessible on the most personal of levels. Exquisitely shot by DoP Sebastian Edschmid, The Last Station will surprise and enthrall those expecting a dusty, weighty biopic; instead, it’s an involving, moving and beautifully crafted piece of cinema. 4 stars

Extra Features
There’s an interview with Hoffman, plus trailer. Pretty lightweight fare for such a substantial film. 1.5 stars

Stars Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy
Director Michael Hoffman
Format DVD & Blu-ray
Distributor Optimum Home Entertainment
Released June 21