Tag Archives: Michel Gondry

Dave Made a Maze (2017): Cardboard Sets and Cardboard Acting

With a weekend all to himself, Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist, creates an elaborate cardboard maze in his living room. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns, he tells her that he has been inside for three days and is unable to get out. Confused, she calls his friends over and they enter the maze only to get lost themselves.

The film’s most distinguishing trait is the look of the maze. It’s a twisting, handmade structure. First time director Bill Waterson created elaborate sets that are completely unified in their aesthetic. Inside the maze, everything is made from art supplies, including animals, monsters, and, occasionally, human parts. Characters bleed confetti and silly string instead of blood. The inventiveness and commitment to the aesthetic are the highlight of the film as each additional leg of their journey brings new designs. Watterson is able to get a surprising amount of variety from a limited set of materials by using different colors and patterns that prevent the maze from becoming plain. The standard obstacles, including booby traps and even a minotaur are present, but the corrugated look provides a fresh spin on each element.

The maze isn’t the only thing that appears to be built out of cardboard: the acting is just as stiff. Thune and Kumbhani have stilted, sometimes cringe-inducing, delivery and lack any noticeable chemistry. They seem like amateur actors in front of the camera for the first time. The script is no help either. Most characters are underwritten and the director relies on exaggerated reaction shots for development. The supporting cast is mostly one note. They are supposed to provide comic relief but are but each only has a single discernable, usually self-consciously quirky, trait that leaves them either forgettable or annoying.

The film is filled with overdone reactions like these.

The central metaphor is that of art being an all-consuming endeavor. Dave is described as someone who has never been able to finish any of his artistic goals and is still being supported by his parents despite being in his 30s. The maze is both his greatest creation and his burden. He doesn’t want to leave the maze because he hasn’t finished it yet and it is the only thing he feels he has come close to completing. The conclusions here are obvious, that an artist’s work envelops their life and that of their loved ones, and the film never goes beyond commentary that has already been done before. There are many, better films that have examined the psychology behind the tortured artist trope. By devoting its focus on the maze itself, the film is never able to develop Dave and his artistic struggles.

Watterson’s clear influence is the art-and-craft visuals of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but he lacks the ability to match Gondry’s emotion. In Gondry’s films, his elaborate designs are always reflections of a character’s creativity and mental state. They reveal as much about the character as any line of dialogue. The maze and its inhabitants don’t have this connection to Dave. As creative as they may be, the designs in the maze are used as pure spectacle which leaves the film feeling hollow. The poor emotional development of Dave’s struggle and the stiff performances leave the film more like a maze found on the back of a daily newspaper: quick, obvious, and unsatisfying.

2/5 stars.

Microbe & Gasoline (2016)

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is back for another tale of misfits making their way through a normative society. The titular characters feel out of place at school and at home until they meet and befriend each other. Microbe (Ange Dargent), named for his small size and often mistaken by others for a girl because of his hair, and Gasoline (Théophile Baquet; War of the Buttons), named for his scent at school after helping his dad work on cars, decide they’ve had enough of their town and that they will go away together for the summer. They start to build a lawnmower engine-powered car together only to learn they can’t to afford the required registration fees so they come up with a diversionary tactic. Design the outside of the car to look like a house and stop on the side of the road if the police show up. Houses don’t need to be registered with the DMV.

The old saying goes that it’s about the journey, not the destination. The trouble is that it takes too long for the journey to begin. Gondry spends an inordinate amount of time with the boys in school, around their classmates, and with their parents. While this is likely done to establish their need to escape from home, none of the surrounding characters are interesting. They don’t add depth to the leads and are either unsympathetic or make the boys seem unsympathetic for not listening to their parents. If anything, the early section of the film makes their departure more confusing because their families are perfectly reasonable. Instead these scenes weigh down the pacing and unnecessarily distract from the more exciting trip ahead.

Their improvised transportation is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film

When the journey finally begins, we get the Gondry experience his fans appreciate, albeit in a more muted fashion. The director is known for his makeshift arts and crafts aesthetic and that inclination is best exemplified in the car the boys build. They go to the scrapyard and pull bits and pieces of other vehicles, doors, windows, and whatever else they can find to make their escape vehicle. It is Gondry’s little touches that make this process so winning. They add shutters for their windows and even a droppable board to hide their wheels from authorities. These details showcase the director’s acute imagination, but to a lesser degree than his previous films. There are a few examples, but the film would have benefited from more of the zany contraptions, like the olfactory instruments of Mood Indigo, that he is known for.

As their car is assembled we see glimpses of Gondry’s greatest strength. His elaborate production design is the most visible aspect of his style but is actually second to the innocent spirit of his films. To anyone else, disguising a car as a house is a ridiculous idea, but to Gondry characters it is perfectly reasonable – as long as they add some flowers under the window. This sweetness was especially evident in his film Be Kind Rewind where normal people shoot their own no-budget versions of Hollywood classics, but isn’t as prevalent here. The endearing nature of two kids building their own car to get away for the summer is marred by their conflict. When the boys deceive each other it detracts from their appeal. They appear less innocent than we originally thought and it breaks the believability of their whole escapade. If they are capable of lying to even their best friend to get what they want, why would they not be able handle themselves at school or with their families? With characters that eventually lose their endearing nature and early pacing issues, Gondry’s latest effort only charms in passing.

3/5 stars.

Best Movies for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s that time of year again, so here are some movies to watch with your significant other. Or by yourself. No shame in that. You can view this as “Best Valentine’s Day Movies” or more accurately “Best Romance Movies”, a genre that is too often overlooked because of the swaths of formulaic rom-coms you have to filter through to find the hidden gems. Fortunately, I’ve done that work for you.

In the Mood for Love

The overwhelming atmosphere of romantic melancholy of In the Mood for Love will envelop you to the point you never want to leave. While not a fast movie by any means or a film of action, it draws you in through the looks in the eyes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The restraint in the direction and acting make this film. Unlike other movies that rely on melodramatic professions of love in the rain to get a point across (guess what movie I’m talking about here), this movie uses a tension that suffuses every frame. The hues of red, the ornate textile patterns, and the sultry sound of Nat King Cole’s voice coalesce into something greater than any other romance I have ever seen. There is something in the air and the conflict between desire and duty, passion and propriety, are entrancing. Likely my favorite movie ever, romance or not.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

The Before Series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight)

The Before series captures so many aspects of romance. The first movie, Before Sunrise, is about the initial spark of love. The infatuation that comes with connecting with someone on a level you didn’t think was possible. Before Sunset, picks up 9 years later with the characters reuniting. This movie still contains the connection of Sunrise, but adds in the regret that comes with age. What if things had worked out? Where would they be now? Do they still have a chance together after all these years? Finally, Before Midnight takes place another 9 years later. Unlike almost any other film franchise, the Before series has improved with each iteration. Each new movie retains the allure of the previous while adding new complexities and Before Midnight takes this to a new level. It is the funniest, best written chapter but also expands into new territory as it explores the difficulties of long term relationships. Your own personal ranking of the films may vary, but you’ll never regret spending time with Jesse and Celine. Here’s to another film 9 years after Before Midnight. I don’t know how they could improve on it, but that’s also what I said after Before Sunset.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

3-Iron

Director Kim Ki-Duk is well known for the extreme violence of his films. 3-Iron represents a departure from that trend. The story follows a young man who breaks into people’s houses while they are out of town that ends up rescuing an abused housewife. She becomes his partner in (mostly harmless) crime. The two move between empty houses each night, never taking anything and instead doing household repairs or chores in exchange for their uninvited stay. They never speak a word and their relationship slowly develops through the actions they take to look out for each other. The movie has an otherworldly, almost ghostly quality to it and indeed the latter half of the film shifts into the ethereal. If you follow the film to where Kim wants it to go, you will be rewarded with a haunting, understated romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were at the height of their careers with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is about a couple that decides to have their memory of each other erased after a messy end to their relationship. Gondry’s arts-and-crafts practical effects make the transitions between the real and surreal found in Kaufman’s writing seamless and allow the characters to explore their true desires. Eternal Sunshine succeeds based on its ability to convey the emptiness that can be left by someone. Erasing their memory may have removed the dissolution of their relationship but it couldn’t fill the hole left by each other’s absence. The film shows the lengths people will go to preserve their memories of love, even if they come with memories of heartbreak.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Notting Hill

Yes, it’s a Hugh Grant film, but you know what? It’s the best Hugh Grant film. Grant is at his most likable here as the average guy owner of a used travel book shop who mistakenly bumps into and starts a relationship with a world famous actress (Julia Roberts). Is it a little cheesy? Yes, but the schmaltz is sincere and always endearing. The interactions between Grant and Roberts are sweet and the problems they face, despite the crazy scenario, are eminently relatable. Notting Hill is a statement that, no matter their station in life or related complications, all relationships are just a connection between two people, in this case, “just a boy” and “just a girl”.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

About Time

Also written by Richard Curtis and this time directed by him too, About Time features many of the standard Curtis tropes, but with a slight sci-fi twist. Domnhall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant character, but is able to put his own goofy charm into the role. At the age of 21, Tim (Gleeson) learns that the male members of his family can travel in time. His initial actions are what you would expect of a man his age. He goes back in time again and again to undo the mistakes he makes as he dates Mary (Rachel McAdams). But soon About Time transforms into something more. It shifts its focus from romance to family. There is a reason the movie isn’t called About Love. Curtis expands his scope to examine the value of familial bonds, the consequences of actions, and the joys overlooked in everyday life. If you are a stickler for plot holes, you will hate this movie. About Time sets up and then proceeds to ignore every one of its rules about time travel. I can’t fault Curtis for this though. He understands that sci-fi was never really about aliens or space ships, it was about using a premise to explore emotions not encountered in regular life. If you can look past the plot holes and instead look to the emotions experienced by the characters, you’ll find a deep, surprisingly life-affirming adventure.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express, also by In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar-Wai, approaches love from a different perspective. Composed of 2 stories of Hong Kong cops coming off of breakups, the film is looser and more improvisational. Unlike the characters of In the Mood for Love, these people are in their early twenties and the film’s style reflects their point in life. Their future is uncertain, but hopeful. Wong’s signature longing is still present here, but more optimistic and sprinkled with affectionate humor. The characters may not know what is in store for them, but they’ll keep trying for love regardless.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

Brooklyn

The newest entry on this list, Brooklyn, is a period romance about finding a sense of belonging through a relationship. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant, moves to the US only to find herself horribly homesick until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American. The two have instant chemistry and their magnetic performances make you root for the characters as their relationship faces struggles. John Crowley directs his actors to gentle, intimate interactions. In particular, Eilis’s articulate educated speech contrasts with Tony’s stumbling dialogue for adorably awkward moments. Their soft-spoken demeanor combined with the polite manners of the time make for an incredibly charming courtship.

[Available to stream on HBO Go and Amazon]