Skip to main content

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection, though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental.


Appreciation for Jeunet’s milieu is not entirely dependent on one’s inclinations. His last picture, Micmacs, left me cold, evidencing what happens when he relies purely on mannered technique, performances and gags, with nothing in support. It’s his most indulgent film, the one where it’s easy to say, “This is where the co-director of Delicatessen would eventually finish up, his worst excesses allowed to burgeon unchecked”. In between we had his macabre, sumptuous fantasy City of the Lost Children, Alien Resurrection (one I’ve warmed to over the years, although I quite understand why the majority haven’t) and his masterpiece Amélie (I have seen A Very Long Engagement, but it warrants the least likely criticism I’d expect to level at a Jeunet film; it’s rather forgettable).


Amélie remains the perfect marriage of Jeunet’s captivating visual style, peculiar characterisation (housed within the transcendent Audrey Tautou), strangely complementary facility for whimsy and the sardonic, and rhythmic, musical approach to editing (the score by Yann Tiersen is an all-time great). Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried too much about Spivet since Amélie, although it is a wilfully upbeat confection with a positive destination that is never in doubt, is also resistant to schmaltz and tear-jerking. Jeunet is quite capable of moving the viewer, but he’s too sprightly and quick-witted to become treacly or cloying.


So it is with Spivet, which may not share Amélie’s cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel has recently worked with the Coens and Tim Burton) but Thomas Hardmeier lends the proceedings a similarly rainbow worldview.  In particular, the landscapes are striking and luminous, be it the Spivet family farm or the views from the train aboard which T.S. hitches. Even Chicago’s industrial wasteland takes on a transformative, magical atmosphere. Jeunet is a director who, like Gilliam, Dante, Burton and Verbinski, is often only so many paces away from creating live action cartoons (and for some of those, the overlap has at times been overt). While most of these filmmakers are quite upfront about their skewed worldviews, Jeunet is particularly partial to presenting his awry vision in the apparel of idiosyncratic frivolity concealing darker more disturbing forces within. Not usually enough to overwhelm (although Lost Children gets close at times) but enough to catch the darkness unmistakably.


It’s true that there is an air of familiarity about the general circumstance of Spivet. The child on a quest in an exaggerated environment recalls the likes of North, while the narration brings to mind the likes of Babe, Amélie and Pushing Daisies (and even Raising Arizona, in the way the Jeunet leads us to visual punchlines). Reif Larsen’s list of potential adaptors included Wes Anderson, and it would be easy to picture. Anderson too likes his visual asides and punctuation points, and Spivet is replete with them. I’m doubtful that he would have embraced the workings of the young inventor’s mind as wholly, however.  And when we see T.S. debate the different routes to answer the telephone it summons the heightened planning sequences beloved by Edgar Wright. Jeunet approach seems like a sure fit; the visual representations that reflect the book’s layout (about two-thirds of it include some form of drawing, T.S.’s depiction, ordering and mapping of his environment) are seamless and complementary.


10 year-old T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a precocious prodigy with particular abilities in the scientific field. Even his teacher takes issue with his towering intelligence (“You think you’re smarter than everyone else, don’t you?” he remonstrates as T.S. proffers a copy of Discover magazine in which his essay has been printed). He lives on the Montana Copper Top ranch with his taciturn cowboy dad (the ever-excellent Callum Keith Rennie), beetle-studying mum (Helena Bonham Carter, taking a break from Burton wackiness and diving into Jeunet wackiness) and beauty pageant-obsessed sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson). His monozygotic twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies) the apple of his rugged outdoor-loving father’s eye, died in a shooting accident for which T.S. blames himself. T.S. set himself the task of finding the key to perpetual motion (“Such a machine defies the laws of the universe”) and when he learns that the Smithsonian museum has awarded him the Spencer Baird Award for his perpetual motion machine he decides to travel cross-country to receive it, leaving his self-involved parents and sister behind.


It’s fair to say the first two-thirds of Spivet are the superior sequences; the introduction to T.S.’s farm and family, and then the journey itself. He travels first by train, ingeniously encouraging it to stop for him by painting the signal light red with a marker. Then he then hitchhikes the final leg (Jeunet’s world is one where a boy may travel without fear, certainly of the predatory variety). On the way, T.S. meets Jeunet’s actor talisman Dominique Pinon (as rail yard teller of tall tales Two Cloud) and veteran Ricky (Julian Richings), who offers offhand caustic moment comments (“Join the army, see the world, meet interesting people and kill them”); Jeunet delights in these kinds of moments.


When T.S. arrives to take his prize, the picture embarks on a less interesting detour as Judy Davis’ flinty G.H. Jibsen sees T.S. as her ticket to fame and glory; he is subject to inconclusive tests (“Thank you for evaluating my brain, Judy”) and put on television. If this is sometimes bumpy going, fortunately it does not lessen the impact of T.S.’s speech in which he gives an account of the death of his brother (the first such we have heard). He discards discussion of his invention during the preamble; we learn that it will last 400 years, so it isn’t really a perpetual motion device. When he appears on a TV chat show he even offers a sop to the capitalists, claiming that, even though a much bigger machine could indeed power the studio, the outlay on light bulbs would still represent a significant cost.  Catlett has the slightly the nerdy confidence of a young(er) Jesse Eisenberg and he isn’t always nuanced in his delivery, but he’s genuine and restrained in the scene where he explains his brother’s demise to the rapt audience and then again later when his mother informs him it wasn’t his fault, “What happened just happened” (Carter is also strong here, dropping the peculiarities that have inhabited her post-Burton career).


The speech encapsulates the film’s twin themes of immortality and loss, expressing with appreciable subtlety that T.S.’s invention is a means to repair his world after the loss of his brother, through the only means he knows how (scientific application). In other hands (those of Chris Columbus, say) lines like “Thank you for taking care of me, you’re one of the best families in the world” could infest the film like sugary syrup, but T.S. gives off the air of the even-handed, slightly reserved boffin; offputtingly obsessive and aloof to many, T.S. balances this with unlikely empathy and insight. Jeunet ensures that less is more where emotions are concerned; his reconciliation with his mother is disarmingly brief, before it’s time to move on, and his father (“Can’t get horse shit from a cricket”) needs only give him a piggyback (well, that and punch TV presenter Roy’s – Rick Mercer – lights out) to show how much he cares but can’t normaly express.


While it’s the case that one is frequently reminded of a junior Amélie, with the flights of fantasy (Inside Gracie’s Cortex is particularly wonderful, as is the moment where faithful hound Tapioca says farewell while not taking his eyes off the TV), analyses of the ways of the world from its protagonist’s point of view (fake and genuine smiles, his observance of how his “Day and night” parents touched hands in the hallway “as if secretly exchanging a few seeds”), and bittersweet flamboyance, Jeunet’s film about “the Leonardo of Montana” offers much to enjoy on its own merits. Jeunet should probably trying stretching himself a bit, though, even within his own boundaries, if he is to avoid the much maligned fate of Tim Burton (playing in a well dug sandpit and unearthing nothing new).



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.