Before Christmas I was in a bit of a movie-going slump. For some reason, I was finding hard to leave my apartment for anything other than work, which meant that I missed some films I actually really wanted to see, like "The Artist" and "Drive." So with the new year, in addition to resolutions like exercising more and yelling at my kids less, I vowed to head back to the movie theater.
So far, I've made good on my promise and have seen several films in the last couple of weeks. I started with the pure entertainment of "Mission Impossible 4". Like a lot of people, Tom Cruise leaves me kind of cold and I'd never been a huge fan of the franchise. But the combination of Simon Pegg and director Brad Bird made me curious.
This is definitely a film made to be seen on the big screen and while the plot and dialogue were faintly ridiculous (as usual), the action-packed story and fine supporting cast, which includes Pegg, Jeremy Renner and a too-brief Josh Holloway, made it a fun roller-coaster ride of a movie.
There are some amazing visuals and action set-pieces here which must have come straight from the animation-soaked brain of Brad Bird. The fact that Cruise does most of his own stunts did truly add to the jaw-dropping-ness of it. (I don't know whose idea it was to get rid of the awful MI "perfect replica" mask conceit played out in the earlier movies, but that person deserves a medal.) If this team comes back for the inevitable sequel, I'm definitely on board.
Part II of my movie-going resolution was to see more French films. One that has been breaking box-office records and getting great word of mouth here (and is probably ripe for an American remake) is "Intouchables". Apparently based on a true story, the film follows the unlikely friendship between wealthy, highly-educated tetraplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) and Senegalese immigrant and petty thief Driss (Omar Sy), who becomes his helper.
I admit I had some trepidation about the movie, assuming it would played either as a broad comedy or a maudlin tear-jerker, but I'm happy to report that writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano find just the right tone, mixing humor and poignancy without overdoing either. They are helped greatly by the two main actors, Cluzet and Sy (half of a well-known comedy duo here, whose high energy and infectious smile recall a young Eddie Murphy). There is real chemistry and respect between the two that makes their friendship seem unforced and believable.
The script (or perhaps the original story?) also defies certain expectations. Philippe is neither bitter nor depressed at the start of the movie. He has already adjusted to his handicapped state and in fact seems more haunted by the death of his young wife than the loss of his mobility. Instead, he seems intensely bored, which explains why he would take a chance on the charming but inexperienced Driss. Driss is also a bit more complicated than he first appears. Equal parts life-of-the-party and black sheep of the family, he hides a painful backstory that makes his antagonistic relationship with his siblings and single mother much more understandable.
The movie doesn't totally confound expectations. By the end, Driss has matured and is ready to assume more adult responsibilities and Philippe has gotten back some of his taste for life. But these transformations seem earned and not imposed by the filmmakers. So don't go see "Intouchables" expecting huge laughs or shocking plot turns, but do go see it if you want to be touched by a profoundly human story.
The third of my January films was "La Colline aux Coquelicots" ("Up on Poppy Hill" in English, I think), the latest from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese powerhouse behind "Princess Mononoké", "Spirited Away," and "Ponyo" among others. My son Alexandre is obsessed with these movies, although he's hardly the only one. Hayao Miyazaki, who directed the three I just mentioned, is considered a GOD here, which is why many of the Ghibli movies open in France before they get to the states.
"La Colline aux Coquelicots" was co-written by Miyazaki but directed by his son, Goro. Based on a well-known comic book, the film takes place in 1963 and tells the story of Umi, a high-schooler whose sea-captain father died years ago and who lives with her grand-mother while her mother works overseas. Umi gets involved with a group of students who are fighting to save the old building which houses the extra-curricular clubs and meets Shun, who seems in every way her soul mate. But then a family secret threatens to tear them apart...
I don't want to get too much into the plot of the movie because, frankly, there isn't much of one. To a westerner, it seems like a strange choice for animated movie marketed to children. I'm not even exactly sure that Alexander followed what was going on, but it didn't seem to matter much.
The pleasure in the film is all in the details - the recreation of a Japanese port town in 1963, the lovingly rendered "Quartier Latin" house the students are trying to save, the scenes when Umi and Shun discuss the school paper or share some fish nuggets. Personally, I prefer the flights of imagination in the films of Miyazaki père, but Alexandre seemed to find all these small moments as fascinating as any battle with the forces of evil. Not sure what that says about the two of us, but I look forward to taking him to the next Studio Ghibli creation.
With Oscar season approaching, there should be even more big name movies opening here. Crossing my fingers I can resist the urge of the computer and the nap and keep making it to my local movie house...