Santa Claus (Le père Noël)


Even Santa Claus has to do laundry once in awhile.

(2014) Family (Under the Milky Way) Tahar Rahim, Victor Cabal, Annelise Hesme, Michael Abiteboul, Philippe Rebbot, Amélie Glenn, Jean-François Cayrey, Djibril Gueye, Naoufel Aliju, Satya Dusaugey, Charlie Dupont, Lou Ballon, Charles Albiol, Steve Tran, Mathieu Lourdel, Yamina Meghraoul, Jérôme Benilouz, Laurence Pollet-Villard, Pierre Core, Dominique Baconnet. Directed by Alexandre Coffre

 

Our heroes don’t always hold up to close scrutiny. Look closely enough and you’ll find faults as egregious as, well, our own. It never occurs to us that those we admire the most are just as fallible, just as flawed as us. And let us not forget, to the average six-year-old there is no bigger hero than Santa Claus.

Young Antoine (Cabal) is just that age and still a believer in Father Christmas. He reads his list of Christmas wishes, certain that Santa can hear them. When his mother (Hesme) urges him to get to bed on Christmas Eve or Santa won’t arrive, he follows her instructions – but going to bed as every child and most parents know is very different than going to sleep.

Antoine hears a clatter out on the balcony of his family’s Paris high-rise apartment building and arises to see just what is the matter. On the balcony he sees such a sight as he never believed he would see; Santa Claus in full red suit and beard. But this Santa (Rahim) isn’t there to deliver presents; he’s there to rob the occupants of the apartment. He manages to convince the wide-eyed tyke that Santa’s sleigh is broken and requires gold to run again – so with no time to return to the North Pole to retrieve some, he needs to take what he can find so that the presents can be delivered around the world by sunrise.

The thief’s glib lie backfires on him when Antoine decides he’s going to stick to Santa like glue. Antoine believes he’ll be rewarded by night’s end with a ride in Santa’s sleigh. Unfortunately, “Santa” is being chased by some real bad men who he owes a lot of money to (hence the need for gold) as well as the cops who have been getting reports of a thieving Santa all night long. As the crazy Christmas Eve moves into Christmas morning, man and boy form a special bond. They may be able to provide the things the other needs – if they both don’t end up in jail.

In case you wondered if lowbrow family films were exclusively the province of American filmmakers, here is the proof they exist in France as well. This French-Belgian co-production has all the family film clichés that it feels like you’ve seen it all before unless you’re Antoine’s age. When they say the plot almost writes itself, well, here’s a case where it probably do – the baseball team’s worth of writers notwithstanding.

Rahim is certainly charming and while any Americans who are familiar with the actor likely know his work in A Prophet, in a much different role he shows he has the star power to carry a film on his own. Unfortunately, Cabal is given a role that has been written as if all six year olds are absolute morons. I know that six-year-olds are trusting sorts but there are things here that Antoine takes on faith that even a four year old might say “Hey now, that just doesn’t make any sense!!!”

Seeing Paris at night during the Christmas season is a joy in and of itself, and the music by Klaus Badelt is truly complimentary to what’s going on in the film. Unfortunately these things aren’t enough to rescue a film that is ultimately one giant cliché written by a committee of folks who think that being a kid with little experience means being foolish and accepting of the laziest plot devices. Your kid deserves a better movie than this, particularly if he/she has the gumption to read subtitles o top of everything else.

REASONS TO GO: The music is nice and the night scenes of Paris during the holidays are magical.
REASONS TO STAY: Cabal is massively annoying and the character dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are nine writers credited to the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Dark Fortune

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Upside Down


Beyond topsy turvy.

Beyond topsy turvy.

(2012) Science Fiction (Millennium) Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana, Kate Trotter, Holly O’Brien, Elliott Larson, Maurane Arcand, Janine Theriault, Vincent Messina, Cole K. Mickenzie, Paul Ahmarani, Carolyn Guillet, Pablo Veron, Don Jordan, Edward Langham, Holden Wong, Jayne Heitmeier. Directed by Juan Solanas

Sci-Fi Spectacle

Most science fiction stories begin with the idea of “what if?” while the best ones end with the viewer shrugging their shoulders and accepting “why not?!”

For example, consider this; two planets that orbit one another and have dual gravity; on one world, gravity works normally but on the other it repels rather than attracts. The two worlds nearly touch on their highest mountain peaks and one corporation, Transworld, has built a skyscraper that connects the two planets permanently.

Both worlds are inhabited and are essentially products of their gravities. Those who live on one world will be untethered to the ground on the other and vice versa. On the middle floor of the skyscraper, there is one group of cubicles on the floor and another on the ceiling. There are a few other buildings with similar situations.

Adam lives on the lower world which some call Down Below. This is a world that has been ruthlessly exploited by the people of Up Above, who live in luxury and comfort. Down Below seems to exist in perpetual rainfall and gloom and its inhabitants eke out meager existences on the scraps of what they can acquire from up above.

As a child (Larson), Adam had met Eden (Arcand), a young girl from Up Above. The two click immediately but police from Up Above are not allowing any sort of interplanetary romance. In trying to return Eden to her home world, Adam watches in horror as she falls, apparently to her death.

Years later, Adam sees an adult woman (Dunst) from Up Above on TV and realizes that it’s Eden and she’s still alive. His love for her hasn’t undimmed over the years so he figures out a plan to use a beauty cream he’s invented to get him into Transworld, then pursue her and make her his. The problem is that Eden has a rather inconvenient amnesia and can’t remember anything before the fall. Secondly, in order to stay “grounded” as it were on Up Above Adam has to use a rare metal that tends to burst into flame after an hour’s use. Thirdly the authorities on both worlds are none too keen about having the interplanetary romance referred to earlier. It seems that Adam’s love is destined to be on another planet.

The concept here is truly interesting which is one of the movie’s grand advantages. It also is one of its biggest obstacles; the concept itself tends to paint the filmmaker into a corner. Solanas, an Argentinean filmmaker currently living and working in France, sets up the movie in an extended voice-over at the beginning of the film but I think he essentially tries to explain too much rather than just letting the audience go with it. That sets up the expectation that the movie is going to have a kind of rulebook that it will follow.

In fact, there are lots of holes in the theoretical aspects; for example, why don’t the people themselves combust when on opposing planets instead of just the metal? Wouldn’t the upward falls kill you just as dead as a regular downward fall? How can there be a sunrise or sunset when the two planets are both perpetually in each other’s shadow?

Truthfully, I’d be fine not requiring an explanation for any of those things but Solanas himself creates the expectation you’re going to receive one with the over-technical voice-over. A simple line could have done it – “I don’t know all the physics. It just works.” End of explanation and the show can go on, plot holes and all. Michel Gondry never bothers to explain himself; neither should Solanas.

Still even given that this is one of the most jaw-dropping imaginative visual stories you’re likely to find. The visuals of one group of Up Abovers dancing the graceful tango in a ballroom while on the ground Down Belowers dance in a seedy nightclub is striking, and much of the visual look recalls the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Certainly the have and have-not societies seem to be a nod towards the original Metropolis, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but Solanas doesn’t really pursue that aspect of the story. Instead, he’s looking to make a love story and this is indeed more of a romance than it is a science fiction film although the visuals are probably what you’re going to remember.

I don’t know if I would have used an idea for this kind of society to illustrate a kind of West Side Story thing; it’s a story that’s been done a lot of different times in a lot of different ways. Why create this amazing environment and then tell a story you could tell anywhere? However, that environment makes this movie worth seeking out. With attractive actors like Sturgess and Dunst delivering decent performances (and Spall in a supporting role actually standing out) this makes for a really good movie. I think it could have been a great one though.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty concept. Nice performances by the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More of a romance with sci-fi overtones. Too many plot holes. Somewhat oversaturated cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence but not enough to be troublesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Floor Zero scenes were two sets constructed side-by-side as if the screen had been sliced down the middle and folded open. When characters interact from both worlds, the scenes were shot on both sides of the set simultaneously and then inserted into the frame digitally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a surfeit of storyboards and how-they-did-it featurettes.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD), Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Drive


Drive

Ryan Gosling doesn't handle any movie role with kid gloves.

(2011) Action Thriller (FilmDistrict) Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolf, James Biberi, Russ Tamblyn, Joey Bucaro, Tiara Parker. Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Some people use their cars to get from one place to another. Others use them as a status symbol. Still others use them as a means of self-expression and self-identification. Then, there are the very few who just…drive.

The Driver (Gosling) – who is never given a name throughout the movie – does just that. He acts as a getaway car driver for criminals by night, and as a part-time Hollywood stunt driver by day. His agent is Shannon (Cranston) who did what the Driver did once until his knees were shattered. Shannon owns a garage that the Driver works as a mechanic for when he’s not driving. He’s quite good with repair, but he seems like a fish out of water when he’s not behind the wheel.

His neighbor Irene (Mulligan) is raising a small boy (Leos) by herself – her husband Standard (Isaac) is in prison but wants to go straight. The Driver takes a liking to Irene and Benicio (the boy). He is not an emotional sort but something about the boy’s unconditional acceptance and the woman’s quiet sweetness touches him. He begins to spend more time with them.

Shannon has a dream of owning a stock car racing team. He needs some cash to do it, so he visits mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) who watches Driver behind the wheel and knows that this kid can be a racing superstar. Bernie’s partner Nino (Perlman) is skeptical; he’s a brutal and nasty customer who is as greedy and savage as Bernie is clever and murderous. Still, it looks like a pretty straight deal.

However, Standard gets out of jail and returns home. He wants to go clean but he owes some protection money from jail. He needs money fast – and Cook (Biberi), the man he owes money to, is willing to wipe the slate clean in exchange for Standard robbing a pawn shop. Standard really doesn’t want to do it but he’s backed into a corner and agrees to do it. Driver, smelling a rat, insists on being Standard’s driver. Cook wants his girlfriend Blanche (Hendricks) along for the ride.

When things go south – waaaaay south – Irene and Benicio are placed in harm’s way and it looks like the only one who can get them out of there is the Driver. However, with all the forces arrayed against him, even someone as skilled as he might not be able to drive them out of the way fast enough.

While there are those who might mistake this for an action picture, it isn’t – although there’s plenty of action. There are those who might mistake this for a thriller but it’s not – although there are plenty of thrills. Then again there are those who might mistake this for a drama but they’d be wrong – although there is plenty of that too. It’s something of a hybrid of the three.

Refn is a talented Dutch director who was hand-picked for this movie by star Gosling. He’s done things like Valhalla Rises, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson. This is his American movie debut and he acquits himself well. This is very much like Bullitt if it had been directed by Michael Mann in 1986. There’s definitely an ’80s noir look to it, with lots of neon and an 80s-esque soundtrack. This could well have been the lost episode of “Miami Vice.”

Gosling has been compared to Steve McQueen and in many ways that’s a very apt comparison. Gosling is very much the strong silent type, and this role fits him like a glove. In some ways it reminds me of Eastwood’s Man With No Name – a man who follows his own moral compass without minding much that it isn’t necessarily what society believes in. Gosling’s Driver views the world much as an alien does – without complete understanding or buy-in. He cocks his head oddly, as if viewing the world  like someone observing it for the first time.

Brooks is a revelation. Known more for his comedic work, he is surprisingly menacing and dangerous as the mobster. He is disarming and charming, sure but at the core this is a ruthless, amoral killer who would as soon knife you as he would shake your hand and he’s not above doing the dirty work himself.

Perlman is one of my favorite actors and here we see him in a role we don’t see him in often – the psychotic villain. He snarls and is kind of a Jewish goombah. Sort of like Tony Soprano with a yarmulke. Perlman actually sustained some serious injuries, shattering a knee during his final scenes in the movie. That’s dedication.

Mulligan, so good in An Education, plays against type here as the mousy wife. There is definitely an undercurrent of smolder between Irene and Driver, but never anything more than that. Mulligan doesn’t pull off the young wife as well as she pulled off the teenager; that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do a good job, it’s just a good job though.

The action sequences are well done. As you’d expect in a movie like this, the car chases are nicely done. The first one is a bit of a change of pace – it’s less muscle cars roaring through the streets a la The Fast and the Furious so much as a very smart man playing cat and mouse with the cops. It’s more hide and seek than grand prix.

This is definitely more of  a thinking person’s movie rather than the visceral action movie junkie’s film. There’s plenty of gore – Refn is known for his intense bloody style – so those who have issues with it to give this movie a miss in the theater. However, it is so intelligent that you might go ahead and see it anyway. It’s a different kind of movie and with Gosling leading the way, it’s good entertainment as well. If I were you, I’d drive right down and see it straightaway.

REASONS TO GO: Gosling pulls off another terrific performance. Great action sequences. Brooks is a surprisingly adept mobster.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough action sequences; could have used one more car chase. Gore might be off-putting to some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and blood. There are also some breasts here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Irene was originally meant to be Hispanic but when the producers were able to cast Carey Mulligan in the role, some minor changes were made to make her Caucasian.

HOME OR THEATER: There is some sense in seeing this in the theater, particularly for the driving sequences.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Moneyball